Earthquakes, Floods, Tornadoes, Oh my! Disaster prevention in Museums
Considerations for adverse effects on artifacts are often concentrated on transporting the item. From the field to the lab or a touring exhibit, a car or plane ride is the most immediate cause of concern in artifact conservation. However, once at a museum the artifacts can still be subject to physical destruction. Some of these can be caused by people, but this can also be done by environmental causes. These causes can vary based upon location, but a common destructive one is earthquakes. These generally affect the western United States, Asia, and parts of the Middle East. They are, however, becoming more common in other parts of the world that do not normally experience them. Earthquakes can vary in size, with a majority of them being difficult to feel. The destruction of major ones is evident. The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco caused a fire that ravaged the city, another in 1989 collapsed parts of the Bay Bridge. The 2011 in Japan caused massive amounts of destruction. Many of these large side effects are becoming easier to mitigate. Improvements in building technology have started to relieve the stress of earthquakes, mainly by using building materials that let the building shake but not topple it. This is great for preventing fires and city destruction, but does nothing for the objects inside. The secondary side effects beyond the shaking include fire, flood, tsunami, and others. Ergo, earthquakes present a complex and multifaceted problem for museums and conservators.
Planning for earthquakes can be uniquely challenging. Depending on the type of fault line a museum is located near, the shaking of the earthquake can change. Additionally, earthquakes are impossible to predict. In recent decades, museums have started to take preventative measures against earthquakes. Recent research into museums in Istanbul has shown many of the problems of preparing for earthquakes. Istanbul has been a center of seismic activity, with the Hagia Sophia being famously destroyed by an earthquake. The proceeding Hagia Sophia museum has also had to contend with artifacts (Ozil). The solutions displayed in this research can be as simple as moving heavier objects to a lower shelf. However, there are a few problems that can arise (Ertük 2012).
Exhibit concerns also play a factor in earthquake preparedness. Items in storage are much easier to mitigate, as they do not rely heavily on aesthetic principles. Objects on display face both the issue of aesthetic and preventative care. Cost becomes a major concern in dealing with the artifacts on display. Some of the methods can involve securing cases and displays to the building structure, which are inexpensive. Technological research has looked into base isolation and display cases. This is the same technology applied to buildings to make them “earthquake proof” (Myslimaj et al. 2003). The solution of securing display cases to the walls and the floor ensures that the case will not topple over, and additional securing of glass ensures it will not break. However, attaching the cases to the floor increases the shaking during an earthquake. Base isolation systems attached to display cases will allow the case to absorb much of the seismic activity and prevent as much damage as possible. This strategy will range in its effectiveness, depending on the fragility of the artifact. Although probably a much more effective strategy, these systems can be cost prohibitive.
Ensuring that artifacts are securely situated in their spots is an important step in earthquake preparedness, but future concerns must be addressed. Furthermore, the earthquake mitigation strategies need to comply with conservation strategies. These efforts needs to be multidisciplinary, as engineers and geologists as well as conservators must address the variety of needs for emergency preparedness for artifacts.
Ertük, Nevra. 2012. “Seismic Protection of Museums Collections: Lessons Learned After the 1999 Earthquakes in Turkey”. Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 2012 (1): 289-300
Myslimaj, Bujar, Scott Gamble, Darron Chin-Quee and Anton Davies. 2003. “Base Isolation Technologies for Seismic Protection of Museum Artifacts”. Paper presented at the 2003 IAMFA Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA
Orzil, R. 1998. “The Conservation of the Dome Mosiac of Hagia Sophia”. In Light on Top of the Black Hill—Studies Presented to Halet Cambel. Edited by G. Arsebuk, M.J. Mellink, W. Schirmer