Museum visitors might not notice, but encasing artifacts requires stringent precision. Depending on the objects on display, showcases may feature active climate control and integrated passive humidity control. Some situations require an airtight vacuum seal or a pressurization system; others have minimal requisites, such as a dust seal. At the very least, visibility of the artifacts is crucial, second only to safety and careful preservation of each item.

Whatever the parameters for the showcases, the job can be complicated by a display’s unique design aspects or by a museum’s location. The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Alaska’s largest museum featuring examples of the state’s art, history, science and culture, poses both challenges in its new expansion.

The museum will add more than 600 Alaska Native artifacts from the Smithsonian Institute. Because the museum plans to create a study center for native cultures where community elders and professors are encouraged to come in to handle the artifacts, the glass walls of the showcases must be rigid unto themselves so the doors can open. An even bigger complication is the museum’s location. As Ryan Skorch, projects and development director for Click Netherfield Ltd., explains, Alaska resides in the “ring of fire” circling the basin of the Pacific Ocean-an area recording the highest seismic and volcanic activity in the world.

Because of the potential for seismic activity, the all-glass showcases measuring 18 feet wide by 6 feet deep by 12 1/2 feet tall must be suspended from the ceiling. Each case is made up of eight panels of 3/4-inch glass weighing 850 pounds each.

“The cases must be perfectly level, straight and plumb,” Skorch explains, “and they must move.” A pneumatic motorized system will allow the panels to slide out for full access to the case. Click Netherfield must also allow for the shifting movement of the slabs underneath. And, because treated air is pumped in to keep dust out, seals are particularly important-emphasizing the significance of being perfectly plumb.

Click Netherfield Ltd., international museum showcase designers and manufacturers headquartered in Livingston, Scotland, has built a reputation on quality, exceeding the exacting standard of meticulous structural construction necessary for any setting. Click and Netherfield, established separately in the late ’70s, merged in 2006, combing experience, expertise and resources in the design, manufacture and installation of museum showcases. Design and development teams use state-of-the-art 3-D modeling and drafting programs, while manufacturing teams benefit from CNC milling machines, advanced technology glass processing, joinery and steel fabrication facilities and a powder coating plant.

The same attention to detail in design and manufacture is carried through to the company’s measuring equipment for installation. Skorch recognizes the Alaskan museum as the firm’s biggest challenge and he knows it takes the right tools to achieve results when the level of accuracy is critical. Before starting the job, Skorch began a search for the proper tools. Relying on an industry reference, he turned to Leica Geosystems, selecting the Leica Rugby 55 laser level and Leica Disto D3 laser distance meter. Floor-to-ceiling measurements were taken with the Disto, which can accurately measure past obstructions to precisely determine angles. “We did a lot of floor-to-ceiling measuring. That flip-out end piece let us set it on the ground and know it’s plumb.” The multifunctional end piece with automatic detection measures accurately out of corners or from edges.

To support the heavy glass cases, steel frames are being welded to the ceiling-but not before Skorch used the Rugby 55 to plumb it.

“The Rugby has a robust nature,” he says. “I like its circular motion. We can plumb a line up or down, from a tripod, the floor or even a column, allowing us to set a benchmark.”

The Rugby’s scanning or stationary beam can be quickly positioned in 90 degree increments for easy right-left alignment, or, in “beam down mode,” the rotating head automatically positions itself in a plumb down direction.

Unlike those at the Anchorage Museum, the showcases at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto are supported from the ground, but pose a different kind of challenge for Click Netherfield. “We’re working with Frank Gehry,” Skorch says. “That’s a challenge in itself because of all the unique shapes and creations.”

Gehry Partners of Los Angeles, renowned for its innovative (often deconstructivist) architectural designs, is the architect of record for the redevelopment of the Art Gallery-a major building renovation begun in 2005. Founded in 1900 by a group of private citizens, the AGO is one of the largest art museums in North America, housing one of the largest Inuit art collections, along with masterpieces of European art, eminent Canadian artists and photographers. Expected to re-open late in 2008, the 583,000 square foot facility will feature an innovative architectural design. That design translates into a new standard in showcase design from Click Netherfield, due to the geometrical complexity of the exhibits.

“The majority of the cases are not typical,” Skorch says of the “wavy and curvy” glass panels. “Each one is unique.” The cases for the Thomson Ship Models Collection Gallery are constructed of curved glass with a 25 to 45 foot serpentine at the top to produce a wave profile.

Cases in the Thomson Collection of European Art Galleries incorporate minimal design with high-end materials, such as finishes in white marble, Douglas fir, copper plate and cast bronze.

“They’re squared, simple and elegant with a lot of crisp corners and a lot of straight lines,” Skorch says. He used the Rugby 55 to set up the case layout and to install them, praising its ease of use and level of accuracy. “It’s good for setting benchmarks. We strapped it to a building column to establish a line where the case needs to hit.” The wrist strap secures the instrument at any height.

Lightweight and small, the Disto D3 features an integrated tilt sensor that assists with indirect measurements so horizontal distances can be measured despite obstructions. It’s also capable of measuring angles up to ± 45 degrees at the touch of a button.

“We put it on a tripod, hit a button and were off and running,” Skorch recalls, adding a favorable impression that “even the carrying case is well thought-out.”

In Toronto, Skorch was working in a 30 by 75-foot room that would hold 100 components within several showcases. The laser’s Power Range Technology enables long distances to be measured without a target plate. Although Skorch didn’t need it for the AGO, the multi-functional laser has a sensor that detects lighting conditions, automatically switching on the display and keypad illumination for dimly lit or dark conditions.

Another reason Skorch likes the Rugby is its measuring range up to 100 m with an accuracy of 1.0 mm, ± 0.04 in. “We work with tolerances of ± 0.0 millimeters. Others work with tolerances of 3/4 inch over 8 feet. Our client in Toronto specified 1/4 inch. We allowed 3/8 inch. Others have variances up to 1 1/2 inches.”

Those differences must be overcome when two or more groups are working together on an installation. Click Netherfield prides itself on its coordination efforts and is frequently hired as an early project consultant, but Skorch admits it was a challenge in Toronto. Although the museum renovation has been ongoing for a few years, Click Netherfield wasn’t contracted until May 2007. Facing a fast pace that includes a scheduled re-opening later this year, Skorch says they couldn’t wait until the building was finished to take field measurements.

“What suffers the most is the end result,” he says. “Our sight lines are dead-on, but the building isn’t.”

With more than 100 showcases designed to finish flush with the ceiling and a ceiling that isn’t level, the only option to overcome the disparity is to hang them straight. Skorch has decided to conduct a test with two cases, purposely hanging them low to create a detail instead of trying to mask the variance.

Both the Rugby and Disto are on extended loan from Leica Geosystems in a sort of case study arrangement to explore the equipment’s applicability in a new industry. Click Netherfield’s feedback on how the pair adapt consists of unfettered praise.

Skorch may be the only one providing feedback on the projects. He realizes that if Click Netherfield does its job well, museum visitors in Alaska and Toronto probably won’t notice. They won’t take into consideration the precision accuracy necessary to construct the showcases displaying the artifacts they come to see. In fact, they will literally look right through Skorch’s work, as if it wasn’t there. “They haven’t yet built a museum about museum cases,” he chuckles. “So for now, we want people to look right through us.”