Museum Monday: Why Set Collections Priorities for Emergencies? How to Get Started

Ready NYC has named their family emergency preparedness campaign “Winging it is not an emergency plan.” This may resonate with you if you have ever promoted an emergency preparedness effort, only to be told “each emergency is different. We can’t figure out what to do now. We can only decided what to do when it happens.” Resistance to planning can come from any section of your institution, from curators, administrators, and surprisingly, conservators and security staff.

Yes – each emergency is different. But not planning for how your institution will act during an emergency situation can lead to confusion, damage, and even loss of life. We participate in fire drills. We have our fire extinguishers inspected. And to preserve our collections to the best of our ability during disaster recovery, we need to drill our decision-making capability.

Priorities word cloudA good way to get started is for curatorial and conservation decision makers to brainstorm about what “collection priorities” means to them. Collections preparedness literature dictates that planners select their most valuable objects, mark them on maps, store extra keys to them offsite, and so forth. These are logical steps, but for large collections, this can seem overwhelming, and can derail discussions before they begin. But when your team practices establishing collection priorities, they are exercising their ability to make quick and meaningful decisions as a team about objects compromised by water and fire damage.

Sit your decision makers around a table. Include curatorial, collections, and conservation voices, depending on the make-up of your staff. Select one gallery or storeroom. Say “there has been a fire in this room. The fire is out. What do we need to salvage and/or secure first?” Most permanent staff can quickly pinpoint within that room groups, if not specific objects, that have high value to the institution’s mission, without using the collections information database. Make a list of the team’s first impressions. They could include “the cased photographs,” an Album quilt recently published and exhibited in a travelling exhibition, and so forth. Don’t forget rare books and institutional archives too. Object records, if without a digital or hard copy back-up offsite, must also be considered. Think about it: is it less expensive to begin a digitization project now, or to salvage damaged materials at a rate exceeding $50,000 for 800 linear feet later? Certainly, this list will change depending on what areas of your institution are affected.

One group we need to automatically account for during an emergency is objects loaned to the museum. These objects are not ours, and we need to alert the owner that their object has been involved in an incident, damaged or not. Depending on how many objects your museum borrows from outside lenders, this can be a big task during recovery.

Private collectors can also do this exercise. It is worth thinking about what objects are most valuable and most meaningful to you prior to an emergency.

Use the information from your first brainstorming session to refine collection priorities at subsequent meetings. The priority list should be reviewed and updated as new objects enter the collection. Flag priority objects in your collections database with a status flag, attaching a keyword, user-defined field, or collecting them in a package. Make sure you can search these priority objects by location, so that if a flood damages one gallery, you can quickly generate a list of priority objects from your database. Repeated sessions will familiarize and strengthen your team’s capacity to prioritize during a salvage operation.

This information will be critical to helping you, conservators, and your emergency response team make tough decisions during salvage operations after a fire or flood. This period is stressful and emotional. Help your team prepare for it by considering collection priorities now.

This blog first appeared at www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com. If you want to read more like this, subscribe on the News page.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.