Nineteen extraordinarily large Renaissance tapestries adorn the walls of Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry. These pieces, measuring between twelve and thirty feet in length, weigh an average of one hundred pounds, and they took two weeks to install in the exhibition gallery. During the Renaissance, large tapestries hung from metal hooks and ropes, but today, with an eye toward preserving and protecting these delicate pieces, the Museum's Department of Textile Conservation utilizes a special hanging method that minimizes the risk of damage to the tapestries. The video above captures the process of hanging the Gluttony tapestry (one piece from a seven-piece series depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, designed by Pieter Coecke around 1532–34), now on display in the exhibition.
The installation process begins by moving a tapestry from its original location to the Museum. Since many of the tapestries in the exhibition hail from collections in Europe, they had to travel thousands of miles by land and air to reach the Met. Only three airports in Europe fly planes large enough to carry the crates used to transport the pieces in this show. The exhibition's registrar, Nina Maruca, oversaw the shipment of the tapestries.
Most museums store tapestries on large, cylindrical tubes nestled inside shipping crates. In the past, tapestries might have been folded or stored flat; those methods, however, can crease or damage a tapestry's threads.
Once a tapestry arrives at the Museum, it must remain in its crate to acclimatize to the temperature and humidity of its new (temporary) home. After settling into the surrounding environment, the tapestry and its tube are removed from the crate and moved to the exhibition space. The journey of the tapestry from crate to gallery follows one of two routes. Some tapestries will enter the gallery via a freight elevator, but the largest of the pieces cannot fit in the Museum's elevator and must enter the Museum as any visitor would: up the front steps. In both cases, wheeled carts as well as good, old-fashioned muscle power are used to maneuver the tapestries as gently as possible.
After the tapestry is securely transported to the exhibition space, it is then completely unrolled onto a large piece of extremely durable plastic spread out on the gallery floor. The plastic sheet not only protects the reverse of the tapestry but aids in the hanging of the piece. A cloth lining also protects the tapestry's back. Linings are not a new invention—Henry VIII's inventories, for example, reveal that he had his tapestries lined before hanging them.
Once unrolled, the Museum's highly skilled team of conservators carefully uses heavy-duty Velcro to attach the top of a tapestry to a long wooden slat, which runs the entire length of the work. After securely joining the slat and tapestry, conservators thread thin copper wires through hooks that are attached to the slat. These wires will secure the tapestry once it is on the wall.
A rope and pulley system shifts the tapestry from the floor to the wall. Hooks connect pulleys hanging at the top of the gallery wall to the slat. In a carefully choreographed process, six people—known as riggers—gently pull the ropes and slide the tapestry up the wall. The plastic sheeting beneath the piece encourages the smooth transition from floor to wall. Once the tapestry is on the wall, the riggers hold it in position while two trained object technicians, stationed in mechanical rigs, fasten the copper wires to the wall, thus securing the tapestry in place.
The breathtaking moment a tapestry is unfurled is the result of a meticulously monitored process. Of utmost importance is the protection of the tapestries from damage so that visitors to the Grand Design exhibition, as well as future generations, can enjoy the beauty of these exquisite pieces.