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Build an Ark, We Need to Save the Artifacts!

December 4th, 2009

Jennifer Jones

MA Student, Program in Maritime Studies


Disaster preparedness is becoming a faucet of concern for nations around the world when looking to protect the museum and library collections that house the world’s cultural heritage. Hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, and fires are catastrophic events that are affecting communities physically and emotionally. One aspect people often don’t think about though is the safety and recovery of the cultural heritage housed in small or large museums or libraries. Disaster conservation and prevention for museums and libraries is being discussed now more than ever, despite previous occurrences of artifact damage that shaped the current state of artifact conservation.

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Textiles being dried after flooding, Image: www.catpress.com/flood/

            During World War I and II, the British Museum in London, England dealt with impending disaster with the threat of bombing. The staff was able to remove their artifacts, artwork, sculpture, and architectural pieces to safety in the tube lines; this maneuver saved the artifacts from the immense damage that was inflicted upon London during both wars although it led to some additional problems with artifact deterioration that led to the genesis of one of the first scientific conservation labs in the world. Many institutions have not been as luck in the removal or recovery of artifacts due to lack of disaster planning. It is true that in some situations, such as the levee break in New Orleans after the flooding from Hurricane Katrina, certain factors are not taken into account because they are freak acts of nature or twisted dealings of fate, but having an alternative disaster plan could prevent the loss of some cultural heritage.

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Staff removing paintings from the tube after war-time threats, Image: Getty Institute

            Recent developments and a keener sense of awareness of the outcomes of certain disaster-related situations have made designing and implementing plans for disaster planning and recovery a feasible prerogative for museums and libraries. Although not all situations begin as emergencies, without the proper procedures, situations can progress and often rapidly. The first step is identifying and defining potential threats such as natural disasters (i.e. floods, earthquakes, etc.) or man-made disasters (i.e. arson). Planning a response to as many threats as possible is a key step to producing a plan that can prevent as much damage as possible.

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Curator examining cross after flooding in Florence, Italy, Image: www.catpress.com/flood/

            There are numerous networks that can aid in developing disaster and recovery plans for artifacts and artwork. Current research is being developed on software than help collections managers plan for the worst case scenarios. Additionally there are numerous organizations that can not only help prevent damage but also aid in the recovery of artifacts after the fact. Hopefully, with combined efforts the amount of loss being seen from disasters can be decreased. In this case, awareness and the old adage, “expecting the unexpected,” is the beginning of a successful avenue for artifact preservation.

Useful Links:

www.ncptt.org  – National Center for Preservation Technology and Training

http://cool.conservation-us.org  – Resources for Disaster Preparedness and Response

www.sha.org/research_resources/conservation_faqs/plan.cfm#B – Disaster planning for collections

General Conservation

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