Rowing nowhere


Rower in a Top Hat, c.1877-78 (oil on canvas) by Gustave Caillebotte. Photo from

It seems only fitting that I mentally penned most of this blog post while using a water rower at PEM’s staff fitness center.  The sliding seat and sound of the water swishing around as I pulled the bar to my chest quickly brought my mind to the Gig Nana that I recently traveled cross country with and helped install at PEM.

As I watched the digital screen tell me the imaginary speed I was traveling and the fictitious distance I was traversing, I couldn’t help but be aware that I wasn’t actually moving an inch despite my efforts.  These thoughts brought to mind our new exhibition Impressionists on the Water and how much more enjoyable it must be to row oneself through those beautiful French vistas than it is to stare at the same wall while going absolutely no where.  C’est la vie.

I “rowed” my fitness rower and pondered the fact that in their natural element, water, boats such as Nana require only two people to move swiftly. This is but a fraction of the number of people it took to get this magnificent boat installed at both the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and to PEM in Salem. You would need something closer to a yacht to carry the dozens of people required to orchestrate this feat; custom’s brokers, fine art shipping companies, registrars, curators, exhibit designers and coordinators, facilities managers and staff, truck drivers, art handlers, conservators and a rigging company.

Nana close up

Photo by Dinah Cardin

Though one person on each end can easily lift Nana, she traveled well encased in a large wooden crate.  The crate measured around three-and-a-half-feet tall, five-and-a-half-feet wide and 23-feet long.  The best guess of all of those who performed the Herculean task of moving it estimated the weight at 1200 to 1500 pounds.  At the Legion of Honor it took the lift gate of the truck in concert with a forklift to lower the crate to pavement, onto dollies before rolling it into the gallery for unpacking by art handlers.

Below is a video from the installation at the Legion of Honor, courtesy of FAMSF.

At PEM, we have a special means of receiving large crates like this one that is creatively known as the “VLO” — or, Very Large Opening.  We require some assistance in getting these objects up and in through this wonderfully acronym-ed entry.  We most often accomplish this with the help of T.E. Andresen, a moving and rigging company on the North Shore who has the equipment and expertise in such delicate maneuvering.

nana loading

The Gig Nana being loaded through the VLO. Photo by Claudine Scoville

We did not have the luxury of installing Nana in a first floor gallery. The crate was too large for our freight elevator to the House Galleries and, perhaps not so shockingly, the stairs and footpaths up to the House Galleries were not designed around moving a boat over twenty feet in length.  Once the crate was safely inside the museum and 24 hours had passed (it is generally accepted amongst museums that crates should ‘acclimate’ to the environment of a museum after delivery before being opened) the unpacking could begin and Nana could be delivered to her new temporary home.

This required additional help from the rigging company Harnum, also based out of the North Shore.  The boat, wrapped in blankets and shrink-wrap, was placed at an angle on two scissor lifts padded with more blankets.  The lifts were expertly raised simultaneously to just above one of the walkways to the House Galleries.  Once the boat was high enough, Harnum and PEM collection management staff carefully maneuvered Nana off the lifts and over the glass railing to two dollies also padded out with blankets.  From there, she was rolled to and staged in the gallery to await unpacking, placement, assembly (some bits like the seat back and rudder traveled in a separate crate) and lighting.

Gig Nana lifted

The Gig Nana being lifted into the gallery. Photo by Dave O’Ryan

nana up

Photo by Matthew Del Grosso

In museums, the logistics surrounding making a successful exhibition are often kept out of the public eye for various reasons.  It is as if these wonderful collections of carefully curated artwork with galleries designed for them just appear on the wall perfectly lit and ready for audiences.  This is clearly not the case.  Though Nana presented a challenge, she’s not the first (or the last) time a veritable army from the full spectrum of museum and supporting professions will come together to deliver and make available for viewing a fantastic object.

Adding to the beauty of this boat from the 1880s as an object of art and as a functional watercraft (that still sees use), she is believed to have belonged to the French writer Émile Zola.  Émile Zola was friends with Gustave Caillebotte, the yachtsman and boat designer. Caillebotte, a featured artist in our Impressionists on the Water exhibition,  is said to have assisted Émile in choosing this particular boat.

gig nana installed

Gig Nana installed in the gallery, Photo by Dinah Cardin


  1. Jimmy Brungle says:

    What a beautiful boat, worth all the trouble. You should celebrate the accomplishment with a nice lunch, fresh cab legs.

  2. Andrea Bonsignore says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and informative description of Nana’s exhibitionist journeys. We saw her at PEM a day ago and were besotted. We enjoy our own small watercraft (made by artist -designers on the North Shore about 20 years ago) and appreciate all the connections to the 2 work of the 1880′s that this exquisite object conveyed. One special detail of the PEM siting was the lovely “watery” lighting designed to splash over the back wall of the gallery – great idea used to great effect!

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