Logistics of moving a thirteenth-century cope chest

Dr Nigel Bamforth

Senior Furniture Conservator

The York Minster cope chest, one of only seven surviving semi-circular cope chests in English cathedrals and a fine example of medieval timber and ironwork, was requested for loan by the Victoria and Albert Museum from the Dean and Chapter of York Minster for inclusion in the ‘Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery’ exhibition (Figure 1). The chest was used for storing a cope, a liturgical vestment, which was folded in the middle and laid flat inside. To initiate the loan, the Chapter required a full method statement to include packing specifications, exiting the Minster, transport to the V&A, and the route the chest would take through the Museum to its final destination. Manipulating an object of this age and size (1900mm deep and 790mm high) poses challenges and can be a risky procedure; therefore, a full assessment of the chest was undertaken at the Minster by the author to determine whether it was stable enough to move, travel and be rotated to go through the doorways at both the Minster and the V&A, which were too narrow. Previous experience working with similar objects ensured every eventuality was considered and the loan was recommended with confidence.

York Minster cope chest

Figure 1. Cope chest in York Minster (Photography by Nigel Bamforth © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Packing was timed around the Minster’s 7:30am service. Constantine Ltd made a customised crate for the chest and brought it into the Minster through the North doorway on its narrow edge. The crate had four removable sides and lid and additional bracing to enable it to be tipped onto one edge. Its base platform was lined with LD24 Plastazote foam and an 18 mm plywood ‘load-spreader’ inserted on top to stop the feet compressing the Plastazote. Teflon strips were placed in the platform bottom to ensure smooth removal.

Six Constantine technicians manually lifted the chest away from the wall to give full access to the object and allow its lids to be opened. As one of the two lid’s hinges were broken, it was decided to remove this lid in its entirety. The interior of the chest was vacuumed and soft brushed to remove dust then additional supports and wedges of Plastazote-covered blocks were inserted to run diagonally across the interior to support the remaining lid and reduce flexing. The fixed lid was secured and Tyvek-wrapped and the detached lid was wrapped and placed back in its original location. The chest was then manually lifted onto the base platform. The chest side, when vertical, was deemed structurally stable without stressing the fixed lid’s hinges. The whole chest was Tyvek-wrapped to protect from abrasions, with cotton ties and corner pads securing it in place. Plastazote blocks were inserted to fill the voids within the crate.

Once packing was completed, the crate was moved on skates to the North door, gently tipped onto its side and placed on more skates. A ramp was built over the external steps to exit the crate through the doorway and on to ground level where the crate was re-orientated to the horizontal for transporting in the climate-controlled air-ride truck (Figure 2). On arrival at the V&A, the process was reversed and the object followed the pre-planned route through the Museum and onto a plinth for the exhibition (Figure 3).

Crated cope chest existing York Minster

Figure 2. Crated chest exiting York Minster (Photography by Nigel Bamforth © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Cope chest on display at the V&A

Figure 3. Cope chest on display at the V&A (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)


By kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster. I am grateful to Vicky Harrison, Head of Collections, York Minster; Holly Harris, V&A Exhibitions Assistant; and Mick Brown, Senior Technician, Constantine Ltd.

Support generously provided by The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts. Supported by Hand and Lock. Runs until 5th February 2017.