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And so it begins: the installation of the Maharaja exhibition

October 30th, 2010

It has been enjoyable following the planning of the AGO’s Maharaja exhibition, but what I have been dying to see is the actual installation process. Finally, I get my invitation.

“Do you have steel-toed boots?” reads the email.

I arrive and I am guided through a labyrinthine set of hallways (I start to panic a little, thinking to myself that it might be a good idea to leave a trail of crumbs behind so I can find my way out). We pass one more set of doors, get my name checked by security and voila, we’re finally here, at a half-finished construction site.

Looking around, I feel like I’m a kid again when my family visited the suburban subdivision where our house was being built. There’s that similar feeling of excitement and wonder. That this work-in-progress will one day be real.

There are the incomplete walls, the cases for objets being built, a half-painted wall and a corner full of plaster dust that leads to a whirlwind of sneezes. One room is full of crates of all sizes, packed together so tightly, you can’t walk between them. A few crates include mannequins who are already partially dressed in vintage saris (it leads to less wear and tear, says the textile conservator).

In another room, paintings and photographs are already hung, but they are covered in craft paper to protect them from the light for just a few more weeks. Fortunately, there is something to see, a silver landau (or carriage) that shines not-so brightly, waiting for its daily polishing.

People are everywhere: the AGO’s own installation technicians, Maharaja team members, and even folks from the Victoria & Albert who have accompanied the work to make sure the installation process goes smoothly (some are here for a few days, others for a few weeks).

Often the work is prosaic – someone has to drill holes in the walls to hang the paintings or lift part of a picture frame ever so carefully out of a crate. But the levels are out, as are the measuring tapes, to make sure the lines are straight.

Welcome to a fairy tale world where perfection is a necessary part of the job description.

Piali Roy is a Toronto writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at

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