Polly Christie and Sarah MacKinnon took us through the history of the 2014 Glasgow School of Art fire, beginning with how the building’s construction directly affected the scope of the disaster, taking us through the extent of the damage, and detailing the ongoing rescue process. Each component of this complex recovery project intersects with the others, demonstrating the interconnected nature of cultural heritage properties and the collections residing within.
Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and built in phases, the Glasgow School of Art building is widely considered Mackintosh’s masterpiece, and is an early example of both total architecture and industrial design. The first phase, completed in 1899, saw the completion of the east wing, while the second phase, modified from the original plan, included the west wing and additions to the east wing, and showcases Mackintosh’s work at the height of his powers. The library tower, located in the west wing, borrows elements from Japanese architecture and was built to best accommodate the needs of the school. In addition, Mackintosh’s work includes an early air conditioning system of branched ventilation ducts running in straight lines through the entirety of the building.
These ventilation ducts, while certainly appreciated by the building’s occupants, were critically involved in the 2014 disaster. The blaze began in a basement studio and spread quickly throughout the building via the ducts, reaching the library tower and raging through the collections stored both in the stacks and in storage above the main library space. These collections were irreplaceable, including school archives, art created by alumni, historic furniture, and 11,000 special collections volumes.
The fire required 11 teams of firefighters and 24 hours to fight. Once the danger had passed, the mass of destroyed building and collections in the library tower was “excavated” or sorted through in one-meter-square areas, leading to the salvage of 81 volumes as well as important information about the underlying structure that would be used in the reconstruction effort. Triage systems and decision trees were established for sorting through the wreckage and recovering collections items.
A few collections merited particular mention in light of the recovery efforts. A large textile collection held in storage survived, but the packaging was destroyed; this was not covered by insurance claims, as the staff learned, and the collection is currently inaccessible while a new housing is designed and made. The school also has a substantial collection of plaster casts of famous sculpture, including three copies of the Venus de Milo. Insurance funds were diverted to treatment of certain casts, leaving the remainder to the care of volunteers, and one of the burnt Venuses was deemed not worth the effort. However, the blackened cast has captured the media’s imagination and public support for its treatment is high. In addition, the library was furnished with brass light fixtures, which became an intersection of the building fabric and the collections; many were dissociated in the disaster, and salvaged pieces will be reunited when possible. The school archives provided the original sketches of the lamps’ design and construction, and these will be used to restore the lights to functionality.
Lessons learned? Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways is that archival collections and other records can be valuable resources in recovering from a disaster. The better the records of a heritage building and its collections, the better the disaster response will be. Knowing the extent of one’s insurance cover is also important, as the Glasgow School of Art learned with regard to the textile collections. And as Christie and MacKinnon demonstrated with their remarks, in cultural heritage disaster response, everything is connected—from the fabric of the building to the collections housed within. In the end, Christie and MacKinnon advised attendees that choices made in disaster response will always be limited by the circumstances of the disaster; the best decisions to make are the best decisions you can make.
This panel, presenting on the response to the tsunami in Japan in 2011, was composed of Masashi Amano, Kazuko Hioki, Tomoko Yasuda Ishimaru and Daishi Yoshihara. Drs. Amano and Yoshihara are both historians, and Ms. Yasuda is a conservator in private practice in Tokyo. Ms. Hioki is a conservator in the United States, and special thanks goes to her for her excellent translation during the question and answer sessions. The presentations brought to light a number of interesting cultural differences that may be surprising to an audience from North America. The majority of public records (according to Dr. Yoshihara, the number may be as much as 90%) are held privately, rather than my public or governmental institution. This means that when a disaster occurs, it is often difficult to find out who is a stakeholder, what records are involved, or even where those records are. Often, historic sites contain records, but just as often records, historical and modern, can be found in attics and in community centers. This would include tax information, birth and death records and legal documents. The prevalence of natural disasters in Japan makes creates another important difference.it It si very difficult for insurance companies, a very conservative business in Japan, to provide coverage in the event of a natural disaster. This means that public institutions and private collections cannot rely on the insurance industry to pay for recovery companies, and as a result, recovery companies have a much reduced presence in Japan. The end result is that, when natural disasters occur, Japanese individuals and institutions cannot rely on the same emergency response structure that we in North America. The presenters spoke about their work helping disaster recovery after the 2011 tsunami, but much of their presentations focused on Shiryo-net (the Miyagi chapter which responded to the tsunami has an english language blog). Shiryo-net is a grassroots organization of historians and volunteers who respond to disasters specifically to deal with conservation issues, such as finding out where in a town records may be kept, rescuing those records, and performing triage treatment whenever possible. Shiryo-net formed after the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in 1995, and has grown to 24 regional chapters across Japan. Since its inception, Shiryo-net has focused on saving those 90% of documents that are not in museums, libraries and archives. Its activities are entirely funded by membership dues and donations. The organization first came into contact with conservation on a more formal basis in the wake of a flood in Hyogo prefecture in 2004. During this disaster, they were able to work with conservators to develop first aid treatments that could be taught easily to volunteers, and the difficulties they encountered encouraged them to host workshops and become a center of volunteer training for conservation volunteers. When another flood occurred in Hyogo in 2009, the response was much quicker, and the level of care given to documents was much better. Shiryo-net is now an experienced organization, and focuses on leadership training and volunteer education as well as disaster response. The second major focus of the talks given by the presenters was on Shiryo-net’s response to the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami. The obvious difficulties of working in a disaster area were present, as were the difficulties of working with a large, non-professional force. Over the course of the recovery, Shiryo-net worked with over 5,000 volunteers, and had to develop techniques for training, supplying and managing such a large and ever-changing population. Because of the scale and scope of the disaster, salvage operations were ongoing as much as three years after the disaster. Since the tsunami, Shiryo-net has rescued more 70,000 items, with at least 50,00 items still in storage waiting to be treated.
The presentation was informative and engaging. It was interesting to hear about the different challenges faced in a different country, and how those challenges have been met or overcome. I would like to thank the presenters again for being so forthcoming with their talk materials as I prepared this post.
John Childs presented the treatment and installation challenges the conservation team faced at the 9/11 Memorial museum.
After 9/11, spontaneous memorials appeared, and the 9/11 Memorial Museum became the permanent memorial for this tragic event. It created a need to save and preserve physical evidence of the attacks, ranging from bits of paper to enormous steel girder and fire engines, not because of what it was but how it demonstrated in a physical way the trauma of that day. As conservators, we recognize where value lies in making treatment decisions, but poor condition itself is valued for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Three treatments that posed philosophical challenges were explored in this talk.
The first was a Warner Bros. sign, which was saved from the store on the concourse level of the World Trade Center by some workers who found the material evocative. The object included letters as well as portions of the wall it was installed on. The question became how much of the sign to include in exhibition: the whole thing? The letters, cement tile, and mortar? Just the letters? Childs questioned whether this discussion was legitimate. Museums don’t usually select portions of an object but when extracting bits of wreckage, where are the boundaries between one object from another? There were so many layers that they distracted from the letters, so the decision was made to saw off wall board from the letters because that is where the value lies. It was then affixed to aluminum honeycomb and rendered legible as an object but also preserved the trauma it suffered. It takes its place among evocative objects from the site.
The second treatment involved the B2 parking level wall from the garage. The preservation of trauma is the primary conservation goal: the preservation of trauma of specific events, 9/11, but also of February 21, 1993, the truck bomb in the garage of the World Trade Center. Part of the B2 parking level wall, complete with scorch marks, was covered, wrapped, and transported to museum. It arrived during construction of the building and protections against flooding were not in place at this time. Hurricane Sandy flooded the area and seven feet of water went into the museum site, submerging large objects under water. It took five days to pump the water out and clean the objects. Vehicles or steel were primarily the large objects and medium pressure steam was used to clean these objects. The B2 slab was now covered with a layer of silt on its surface, on top of the soot from 9/11. The decision was made to completely remove evidence of Sandy, though Sandy was now another trauma suffered in NY. The value of the collection lies in its history and this would be hiding that history, but the mission of the museum was not to preserve the memory of Sandy. They had to remove the trauma of Sandy while preserving trauma of 9/11. They delayed treatment and found that as the silt dried, it could be brushed off without disturbing the 9/11 soot underneath. They waited until it was installed vertically in the exhibition and brushed the surface into a HEPA vacuum, revealing the soot.
Dust was an enormously significant part of the story, including silica, asbestos, and man-made vitreous fibers, creating a decidedly unhealthy environment. This really amounted to human remains. Dust was all that people had left of loved ones. Dust had a unique place in that story, as both a lethal and sacred substance. Childs stated that there is a palpable and justifiable fear of it in NY still today. Dust was donated to the museum, and one of the most significant donations is a display of Chelsea Jeans, a store on Broadway a couple of blocks from the site. The owner found the store under a thick layer of dust and left part of the store undisturbed, sealed behind glass to protect customers. He donated the storefront to the New York Historical Society, who used asbestos mitigation to deinstall and move it to NYHS. It was put on display in 2006 in a specially designed case and then donated to the 9/11 museum. To install it, the museum had to hire an environmental mitigation company to create an asbestos containment chamber in the galleries. Those working on the display took a course on asbestos training, had medical tests and a respirator fit testing. The containment chamber consisted of crates for objects, crates for glass sealing case, entry chamber (air lock), and a shower for decontamination after exiting enclosure. They all wore respirators and disposable coveralls. Given the situation, they had to make installation decisions as they were working, and they had a window so curators could be involved from the outside. The case was installed in a way that curators thought would best represent the original display. Glazers were installed and sealed the glass. Many people not used to standard museum procedures were very involved in this process, making cooperation and compromise absolutely necessary. This exhibition combines, in one setting, all of the disparate meanings of dust on 9/11 and is in the section on response and recovery of the museum.
For the 9/11 museum, damage and destruction is the story. For conservation, it is critical to appropriately save the evidence of damage that will tell the story effectively. Childs expressed how it can be emotionally charged with horror, sadness, and loss. The museum and experience have a profound meaning for a huge number of people, and Childs ended his talk by expressing what an absolute honor it was to participate.
In this talk, Irene Karsten presented a method that CCI has established to quantitatively evaluate risk assessment for an institution. CCI has been using this method, called the ABC method, to conduct risk assessment for heritage institutions. The probability of a certain incident is estimated by answering the following questions:
How often will the event occur?
How much value will be lost?
How much of the heritage asset will be affected?
A score of 5 points is generated for A, B, and C, for a total magnitude risk out of 15 points. A total of 5 points or lower is considered negligible risk and 15 points is catastrophic and unacceptable.
Loss to collection
5 or lower
9 or lower
Medium to negligible
Damage takes millennia. May agree that level of care is adequate and improvements possible but wait till higher risks are reduced.
Medium – high
Maybe negotiable. Standard of care may be okay but improvements highly recommended
Lost in 100 years, may be unacceptable
Unacceptable. All value lost in decades. Such risks are rare.
In this talk, Karsten is paying particularly attention to level 10-13 risks. Also, this is a logarithmic scale, which allows the authors to graph a lot of risks on each graph and compare them easily. Karsten went through a number of examples, including two historic houses, art gallery, provincial archives, and science and technology museum, highlighting the various risks and how they were evaluated. For all five institutions, disaster risks in high or extreme categories were fire. CCI did not just assess the risks, but also looked at mitigation of risk. For fire, CCI recommends an automatic fire suppression system. This does not eliminate fire risk but substantially reduces the risk of spread. In terms of cost-effectiveness, options that reduce large risks tend to have a better cost-effectiveness, too. When assessing if your collection is at a serious risk of loss, it has to impact storage.
Karsten then went through five types of weather disasters and explained how an institution would be assessed to be at an extreme or high risk for that threat.
For a flood, an institution is at extreme risk if storage is below flood grade or even below grade near the old water main or faulty storm sewers. An institution is at high risk if it is on grade on a flood plain or below grade.
For a fire, an institution is at extreme or high risk if it is a combustible building structure, there is lack of compartmentation, the region is at risk of wild fire, or there is a lack of automatic fire suppression. 1 in 5 fires is expected to spread to the whole structure.
For an earthquake, an institution is at extreme risk if the building is lacking seismic protection and there is a risk of violent earthquakes (7 or higher on the Richter scale). An institution is at high risk if storage is lacking seismic protection and there is a risk of very strong to violent earthquakes (6.5 or higher on the Richter scale).
For a tornado, an extreme risk is EF4 or EF5 tornados in US and high risk of EF4-5 in Canada, depending on the frequency of tornados in the area.
For a hurricane, an extreme risk is if the building is in a region at risk of major hurricanes (category 3-5) and the building is not designed to resist high winds. In Canada, only category 2 hurricanes really occur, and the damage is rarely extensive to be high or extreme risk.
In June 2013 the province of Alberta in Canada experienced a flood that affected over 25% of its area. A state of emergency was declared and over 100,000 Albertans were evacuated. The flood caused around $6 million in damage to artifacts and buildings.
Talk presenters Emily Turgeon-Brunet and Amanda Oliver, were tasked with helping archival institutions throughout the province with recovery and future disaster planning and preparedness nearly two years after the flood occurred. There were many things to deal with including mud, water damage, mold, frozen items, and things that were improperly packed prior to freezing.
Funding from the Government of Alberta allowed the dynamic duo to assess damage and help institutions throughout Alberta with recovery from the flood and to prepare for future disasters. This included site assessments, education, writing disaster plans, performing conservation treatment, and purchasing supplies like water detection systems, frost free freezers, boxes, shelves, and disaster response supplies. Full reports were made with work plans so the institutions could meet their current and future needs and goals. They were able to hire contractors, conservators, and archivists to help with recovery and treatment.
Emily and Amanda were not only out in the field visiting institutions and helping any way they could in person, but they were also working on the home front on multiple forms of outreach. This team is currently developing a loan program where supplies like books, wet/dry HEPA vacuums, and digitization equipment will soon be made available for institutions to use on a temporary basis. They are developing an app to connect archivists across Alberta with emergency contacts and recovery specialists, as well as to put archivists in contact with one another to assist with disaster remediation.
They also have a strong presence on the web. Emily and Amanda developed and performed in a series of six how-to disaster recovery videos! They are very clear, informative, and fun! I highly recommend everyone check those out! The disaster recovery how-to videos can be found here: http://archivesalberta.org/programs-and-services/flood-assistance/how-to-videos/ After you watch the how-to videos there is a lot more to see on the Alberta Flood Advisory Programme website that they developed which can be found here: http://archivesalberta.org/programs-and-services/flood-assistance/
Major disasters in instances such as the NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center are usually caused as a result of mechanical or thermal stresses that the object was not built to withstand. Artifacts that result from these tragedies imbue an immense cultural reaction, especially when there is a large-scale loss of life. To honor the lives lost and provide closure for survivors, these artifacts are frequently memorialized. According to Conservation Solutions, Inc. (CSI): “working on these artifacts is complex as they have unique materials-related challenges and emotional and cultural importance.”1
NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 28, 1986. After the explosion, pieces of the Challenger fell into and were later recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. One piece recovered from the shuttle’s left side panel patriotically displays an image of the U.S. flag. This panel contained a wide range of materials from fiber batting to ceramic tiles to stainless steel. Conservation issues addressed during treatment include chemical and mechanical damages from the explosion, stabilizing chemical damages from extended exposure to salt water, and removal of barnacles and other biological attachments.
In another space shuttle disaster, NASA’s Columbia disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere minutes before its scheduled landing at Cape Canaveral on February 1, 2003. Unlike the Challenger, the Columbia debris was recovered from a Texas field and stored in a controlled museum climate. Frames that were recovered from the Columbia’s crew module windows were selected for conservation treatment and exhibition. CSI intentionally left scorch marks intact as well as soil and foliage embedded in the frames since these elements are significant to the history of the artifact. Conservation treatments for the Challenger and the Columbia were conducted in secrecy at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Due to the sensitivity and heightened security associated with these treatments, restrictions were placed on materials brought on base, treatment methods pursued, and waste produced and removed from the base. Once completed, the panel from the Challenger and frames from the Columbia went on display at the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 2015 as part of a memorial exhibit titled Forever Remembered.
The RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank the following morning. Had there were a sufficient number of lifeboats on board, many deaths would have been prevented. Davits (image above) projecting over the side of the ship were manually operated to lower life boats into the water. One Davit arm conserved by CSI “tell[s] a poignant tale of the Titanic’s sinking as one side of the base shows the screw for the arm in its lowered position while the other is still raised, showing that one of the too few lifeboats that could have saved lives was not lowered.”2
The conserved Davit arm and base had spent decades underwater which severely impacted the iron, steel, and brass metal body and fixings. Because the structure had become quite fragile, the CSI team needed to first stabilize the Davit arm and base and then create an exhibition mount. The Davit arm and base were gently power washed to remove corrosion and the segments were sealed with wax. The mount was composed of an iron frame and steel base which provided additional support and is capable of being disassembled and reassembled for exhibition.
There were seven buildings that together formed the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers ascended high above the other buildings in the World Trade Center as well as the surrounding buildings in New York City. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes were flown into the towers. The towers collapsed about an hour later, destroying with them the other buildings in the World Trade Center complex.
Sections of “tridents” from the base of the World Trade Center remained intact after the collapse, and these architectural elements became an icon of durability and survival for both New Yorkers and Americans across the country. Each trident measured between 70-90 feet and weighed around 50 tons.3 They were removed by the FBI and transported from the site to an undisclosed location. The CSI team conducted treatment in 2015. The main focus of this treatment was to stabilize the paint rust and calcareous attachments, apply a protective coating, prevent water from pooling, and deter birds from nesting inside the trident. As with the Challenger and Columbia, the World Trade Center project was conducted in secret and the conservators had to abide by government restrictions during treatment. The FBI provided CSI with a camera, but conservators were not allowed to bring their own camera equipment or cellular phones onto the property. All before treatment, during treatment, and after treatment photographs were reviewed by the Bureau before being approved and released to the conservation team. Not all the photos that were released to the team were approved to show during Beesley’s presentation.
For each case that was discussed – NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center – the materials conserved exhibit the physical evidence and effects of disaster. The conservation processes varied from one project to another, but all of them had some degree of secrecy, communication restrictions, and logistics challenges. These objects carry significant cultural value and evoke extreme reactions of fear, anger, sadness, and other emotions from the public. This is especially relevant for objects of recent tragedies and required the CSI team to be diligent about balancing the complex, varied, and changing relationships that stakeholders had with the artifacts.
Bibliography 1 Beesley, E., Sembrat, J., Rabinowitz, M., & Posluszny Bello, J. (2016). The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center [Abstract]. American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works 44(1) and Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property 42(1), 11. Retrieved from http://www.conservation-us.org/docs/default-source/periodicals/am2016-abstractbook-web.pdf 2 (N/A). RMS Titanic Davit Base and Davit Arm Conservation and Mounting. Conservation Solutions, Inc. Retrieved from https://conservationsolutionsinc.com/projects/view/306/rms-titanic-davit-base-and-davit-arm-conservation-and-mounting/ 3 Dunlap, D. (2010, September 8). Two ‘Trees’ Return to the World Trade Center. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/08/two-trees-return-to-the-world-trade-center/?_r=0
Pruitt, S. (2015, August 3). NASA Displays Challenger and Columbia Wreckage. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/news/nasa-displays-challenger-and-columbia-wreckage
Excerpts of authors’ backgrounds as listed on Conservation Solutions, Inc. Elizabeth Beesley, Conservator & Project Manager
Elizabeth is a conservator with a background in conservation science and experience in collections management and historic preservation. She holds an MEng in Materials Science (2004) from the University of Oxford where she researched Bronze Age metalwork. While a graduate student in conservation at University College London, she conserved archaeological material at English Heritage and worked on historic aircraft at the Science Museum in London. Subsequently, Elizabeth investigated excavated lacquerware using spectroscopy at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. More recently she managed a digitization program at College Park Aviation Museum where she also assisted with collections care. Before joining Conservation Solutions in 2012, Elizabeth worked as an assistant conservator at Aeon Preservation on archival research, construction management and condition assessments. For more information about Elizabeth, please visit: https://conservationsolutionsinc.com/staff/view/152/elizabeth-beesley Joseph Sembrat, Senior Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Joseph Sembrat has been immersed in the conservation field for over twenty years. In 1999, together with his wife Julya, he founded Conservation Solutions, which has since developed into a leading, nationwide, historic preservation firm focusing on art, artifacts and architecture. Conservation Solutions has been recognized for and won numerous awards for its work over recent years . . . Joe is also an accomplished author and presenter of topical industry relevant issues. He continuously conducts research and publishes papers on topics in the preservation field with special emphasis on technology-sharing among various areas of industrial research and its applicability to conservation treatments. Joe holds an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (1993), and a BA in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (1990). For more information about Joe, please visit: https://conservationsolutionsinc.com/staff/view/79/joseph-sembrat Mark Rabinowitz, Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Mark Rabinowitz is Executive Vice President, Senior Conservator. He has been part of the senior management team of Conservation Solutions since 2003. He brings over 25 years of experience as a conservator to the leadership team of the firm. Mark served as Deputy Chief of Operations for Preservation at the Central Park Conservancy throughout the 1990s, during which time he initiated and directed their monuments conservation and historic preservation programs. In 1997 Mark was named Chief Consulting Conservator for the New York City Parks Department where he started up a similar program to treat monuments throughout New York City . . . Mark has presented papers, published articles, lectured and taught at national and international conferences and institutions including APT, AIC, ICOMOS US, SFIIC (France), Tulane University, Columbia University, New York University Conservation Center, University of Texas at San Antonio, Long Island University, Penland School of Crafts, and the Lacoste School of the Arts in France. His art has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Brussels, and Paris, and is represented in public and private collections in the US and Europe. For more information about Mark, please visit: https://conservationsolutionsinc.com/staff/view/78/mark-j-rabinowitz Justine Posluszny Bello, Vice President of Operations & Senior Conservator
Justine joined Conservation Solutions in 2007. She operates as a project lead and Senior Conservator, applying her strong expertise in all aspects of conservation, including condition assessments, conservation treatments, materials testing and analysis, and construction management . . . Justine holds a MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and a BA in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington. For more information about Justine, please visit: https://conservationsolutionsinc.com/staff/view/76/justine-posluszny-bello
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC has long dealt with collection emergencies. One of the first major disasters in their history was a construction fire that broke out on January 24, 1865 in the Smithsonian Institution Building, lovingly known as the Castle. This fire started between the ceiling and the roof of the main hall when workmen accidentally inserted a stove pipe into the brick lining of the building, instead of into a flue. In another unfortunate twist of fate, Secretary Joseph Henry (1797-1878) had established a winter-time fuel conservation program throughout the building, causing the water-filled fire buckets located in the hallways to freeze in the frigid temperatures. The library and many early collections, including the papers of James Smithson, were largely destroyed.
Now, one hundred and fifty years later, colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution have come together to discuss the roles they play in the prevention, preparation, and response to collections-related emergencies. While the Smithsonian currently maintains a robust disaster management program, it focuses primarily on human safety, which no one would argue comes first in any emergency. However, recognizing the need for planning for collections, staff has recently developed a concept for the Institution called PRICE, or Preparation and Response In Collections Emergencies.
The Smithsonian Institution policy on emergencies is encoded in Directives. Two directives that pertain to stewardship for collections in emergencies are: Smithsonian Directive (SD) 109 and SD 600. SD 109 sets requirements at both an institutional- and unit-level for emergency management pans. SD 600 establishes policies and standards for all aspects of collections management, which includes emergency management.
Two recent and notable emergencies sparked this reevaluation of collections emergency preparedness – the collapse of the Garber Facility in 2010 due to the weight of snow on the roof, and an earthquake in the DC region in 2011. Several areas for improvement were identified from these events:
Training for all staff. There is a need to effectively inform staff about proper lifesaving responses to specific emergencies (such as earthquakes), the Incident Command System, and procedures for access to affected facilities.
Training for collection emergency response staff. There is a need for training on safety, related to collection-based hazards, post-damage assessment methods, and salvage techniques for specific media types.
Quality control during installation and inspection of storage furniture.
Design of storage housing and exhibit mounts to minimize damage in the event of a future seismic event.
Collections spaces to tolerate risks, such as and earthquake or flood.
In the context of these recent emergencies, the Smithsonian has been approaching preventive conservation initiatives pan-institutionally. For example:
“Strengthening collections” is listed as part of the Institution’s strategic plan, as is broadening access
Through the National Collections Program (NCP), there are four leadership groups currently addressing collections stewardship: Collections Advisory Committee, Collections Space Committee, Digitization Program Office (DPO), and several media-specific initiatives.
The Collections Emergency Working Group, which formulated the PRICE initiative, brought together collections managers, conservators, physical security specialists, NCP staff, and facilities professionals.
The Collections Emergency Working Group recommended that in the event an emergency involves collections, the Emergency Operation Center and National Collections Program will have the PRICE team of collections responders to assist and activate response and recovery. Since the Smithsonian uses the Incident Command System (ICS) for emergencies, the PRICE team would fit seamlessly into its structure as one of the reporting groups to the incident commander. For more information about ICS in libraries, archives, and museums, check out David Carmichael’s book on the topic.
The PRICE committee structure will be that of six members and a chair. (Samantha Snell joined the NCP in March 2016 as the PRICE chair.) The team will follow the emergency life-cycle of preparedness, response, and recovery, and consists of three concentrations that must be addressed throughout an emergency – policy and procedures, training, and logistics.
Just remember that the PRICE initiative does NOT replace or duplicate emergency command centers (ECCs) or replace unit plans. However, it DOES enable ECCs, synthesize planning efforts, develop capacity, foster Smithsonian sharing, and take as models, the Alliance for Response and Cultural Recovery Center.
This concept is now in its initial implementation phase at the Smithsonian, so stay tuned for more exciting news about this initiative!
Here was a distinctly man-made disaster of epic proportions. Director and Conservator, Special Projects, Barbara Heller’s past experience had included work on 1966 Florence flood-damaged books and paintings and she was a responder for the DIA’s emergency team, yet no amount of disaster mitigation had prepared her for the stress and uncertainty of bankruptcy. At the risk of oversimplification, the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts’ collection was put at risk of being sold when the city of Detroit declared Chapter 9 in July, 2013.
The DIA collection, one of the largest in the country, includes iconic works by Bellini, Breugel, Frans Hals and Diego Rivera to name a few. Incorporated as a private nonprofit “Founders Society” in 1885, the DIA had moved from the private sector to a city-owned entity in 1919, with a new building dedicated to the people of Detroit. Now the City’s creditors believed the artwork should be sold against municipal debts. The DIA maintained that it held the collection in trust for the public and that it was not for sale.
Christie’s was contracted to appraise the entire collection over a period of four months. Museum staff had to oversee the evaluators while they examined the collection in three phases. Collections management set up a designated examination room in an effort to limit access to museum storage.
Barbara was asked to conduct research, both for the evaluators and the DIA’s lawyers. Her talk emphasized the importance of maintaining access to original collection files, including registration, donor/dealer, curatorial and conservation reports. Barbara’s search revealed critical discrepancies between the museum’s digital database and the original files. For example, several early acquisitions including a Van Gogh and Matisse were listed as city donations in the digital database. Original minutes from early meetings revealed the works had been purchased by private donors and transferred to the City.
A “Grand Bargain” was eventually struck which became the City’s plan to exit bankruptcy, fund pensions and prevent the sale of DIA’s artwork. The Court found that selling the DIA’s collection would be to “forfeit Detroit’s identity.” Not quite out of the woods yet, the DIA had to raise 100 million dollars as part of the deal. Happily, a key piece of the fundraising was a 26 million dollar gift from the Ford Foundation. As of 2015, the DIA once again became a nonprofit corporation aka Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts. As etched on the marble facade in the late 1920’s, the collection remains “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.”
[What follows is the full text of the talk given by Sanchita Balachandran in the General Session “Confronting the Unexpected” at the 44th AIC Annual Meeting on May 16, 2016. Not all images used in the presentation are shown here.]
Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis
December 15th, 2015, 4:45pm. Baltimore City Hall. The building twinkled with Christmas lights and flashes from the roofs of police cars lined up along E. Fayette Street. Across War Memorial Plaza, on N. Gay Street, television vans were hunkered down. A few correspondents stood, microphones in hand, in harsh halos from the glare of camera lights, against the District Court of Maryland. It was the night that a jury was expected to return a verdict on the trial of police officer William Porter, the first of six defendants charged with causing the death of Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old black man who died in police custody on April 19th, 2015. It was Freddie Gray’s death—yet another in a growing list of young unarmed black people killed by law enforcement—that had catalyzed the violence in Baltimore, that mobilized heavily armed state troopers to the city for three days. But I wasn’t there for the Porter verdict. I’d had the luxury of forgetting that it was being deliberated behind closed doors. Instead, I had come to listen to public testimony, an open airing of anger, frustration and love about different black bodies, the darkly patinated bronzes of Confederate monuments erected on city property. I’d come for a meeting of the Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments.
Nearly every academic discipline has acknowledged that objects have multiple values and meanings, that they embody relationships, histories, memories and identities. But the concept of multiple meanings and resonances of objects is often an abstract one, something left to imagine rather than viscerally experience. And in our own field of art conservation, we have been slow to recognize that objects are not merely a sum of the materials they are made from, but rather, that their “intangible” values may in fact be as important, if not more important than the tangible heritage we’ve trained to conserve. But to the nearly fifty people who testified on the night of December 15th, the intangible and tangible were densely intertwined. It was the same over-life size bronzes that functioned as works of art, as symbols of love and resilience, as markers of oppression and hatred, and reminders that white supremacy over enslaved black people remained a vivid memory on the contemporary landscape.
A biracial teenager of African American heritage spoke of standing on her porch and seeing the Confederate flag unfurled in front of the Lee and Jackson Monument year after year on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans countered, saying that Lee and Jackson also had birthdays in January, as did MLK, Jr. Young activists suggested inviting Baltimore city students to re-cast the bronze into objects of their choosing. There were proposals to leave the sculptures in place with new signage, to replace them with images of prominent African Americans, to auction them to the highest white supremacist bidder and use the recovered funds for Baltimore schools. As I listened, it was clear that while it was the intangible heritage that the sculptures represented that was under attack, it was the tangible heritage, the objects themselves that would bear the blows. Destroying the thing might destroy the memory, for better or worse.
As the United States of America cries out about the pain, anger, pride and oppression that Confederate monuments represent, we conservators are considering their original casting techniques or identifying the best poultices for removing “Black Lives Matter” from them. As discussions of race, diversity and politics infuse our daily lives—from the American presidential election to the claim that the Academy Awards were “#oscarssowhite”—our own field has remained largely silent. Instead, as cultural institutions and museums are struggling to remain relevant, the conservation profession has continued to devote its focus to technical questions and solutions. Our rapid embrace of new treatments, imaging techniques and analytical methods stands in stark contrast to the lack of engagement with the social and political concerns that swirl around the objects we are called upon to preserve. Unlike unexpected cataclysmic events such as World War II, the Florence Flood, or the 2010 Haiti earthquake, all of which mobilized conservators who put themselves in harm’s way to preserve cultural heritage, our contemporary crisis remains invisible and unacknowledged.
Our crisis is one of desperate urgency, but it has gone unconfronted from the safety of our benches, beyond the field of view of our Optivisors and microscopes, in large part because we have been unwilling or unprepared to see the problems even within our own profession. In the forty-fourth year of the American Institute for Conservation, it is time to recognize the ways in which conservation routinely excludes certain hands, voices, perspectives, histories and legacies.
We are professional conservators. We abide by our Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. We preserve objects for future generations. We are doing the right thing. We have the privilege of an unfettered access to objects and collections, with the authority to change or even erase a previous intervention on an object with the sweep of a cotton swab, the stoke of a brush, or an adjustment on a pressure-washer. It is precisely because we can claim this kind of authority, privilege, and power that we must re-examine the very core of who we are, what we do, and why we work. It is precisely because we have the ability and authority to maintain, change or erase histories, stories, memories and identities through our interventions on objects, sites and collections that we must re-engage with three key questions: Who are we? Whose objects are we conserving? Why does conservation matter?
Who are we?
The most recent document to explicitly ask who is racially represented, or not represented, in the American Institute for Conservation is the 1993 AIC Strategic Planning Questionnaire. In the intervening twenty-two years, not enough has changed. The 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey found that “non-Hispanic White staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership.”
One of the more troubling findings of the survey is that the percentages of staff from underrepresented communities in leadership roles in the museum have remained unchanged over the past three decades. To quote Mariet Westermann, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation, “Diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures. It also indicates that the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions.”
I am the product of an educational pipeline. As a college freshman, I received a paid Getty Foundation Multicultural Undergraduate Internship that introduced me to the field of art conservation. As a child of immigrants who were middle class but struggling to put me through college, I could not have afforded an unpaid summer internship to pursue my love of art history. Art was a hobby, a distracting indulgence as I finished my medical school requirements, as my college debt mounted on my parents’ and my shoulders. When I applied to conservation graduate school in my senior year of college, much to the genuine terror of my parents who had sacrificed so much to make sure that I would get a job, I knew that I had only one chance to make it. If I got into conservation school, and I got funding, I could go. I got in. I got funding. I went.
Many of my colleagues and I now joke that we would never get into graduate school. But when we consider the lack of historically underrepresented minorities in conservation, we must acknowledge the existing practices that year by year, keep them out. The experience of the average applicant today is staggering, often gained over years of barely paid or even unpaid preparatory work. If these same expectations had been in place twenty years ago, I would not be a conservator. For those high achieving underrepresented minorities who graduate from college with the option of different educational pipelines, conservation school seems an irresponsible choice given what a trained conservator can expect to earn in the early years of one’s career. After four years of training, my first post-graduate one-year position paid $18,000. It was almost a decade before I gained my first permanent position. Those in the audience of my generation and those younger may recognize their own career trajectories in my experience. Many professional paths are highly competitive and their outcomes uncertain, but within our own field, we must consider how we select and support young conservators, particularly those from minority and lower socio-economic backgrounds.
But “diversity” should not be misunderstood as a desire for simply changing the range of skin tones in our profession for the sake of appearances. Diversity means much more. Decades of research in numerous fields have shown that more socially diverse groups are more creative, innovative and productive than less diverse ones, but within conservation, the need for this diversity is all the more vital because of the kind of work we do. There is much at stake at not having a diverse group of conservators responsible for the preservation of the cultural heritage of humankind. Conservators preserve not only the physical aspects of objects, we also preserve the histories, memories and legacies that objects represent. Unlike the factual or tangible aspects of objects, these intangible aspects are all the more fragile, and subject to be changed or lost if we are not attentive to them. A more diverse group of conservators brings different life experiences, other cultural perspectives, and broader social networks to bear on the cultural heritage we preserve. Such a community also makes possible the challenging of assumptions and accepted ways of practice within the field that may in fact privilege particular kinds of cultural heritage while erasing others.
Consider the work of Shadreck Chirikure, Tawanda Mukwende and Pascall Taruvinga, who through their authority as heritage professionals, balanced the desire of the Khami people of Zimbabwe and South Africa to maintain their spiritual sites as undisturbed, “unmonumental” areas, but also worked with them to minimally stabilize areas so that they can retain their World Heritage status. Consider the work of Sanjay Dhar, whose work with Buddhist practitioners in northeast India recognizes the conditions and parameters under which the repainting of images is required so that they can continue to function in their religious contexts. Consider Andrew Thorn’s work with the Jawoyn people of Australia, whose sacred sites could not be documented with photographs and drawings because such representations posed potential threats to both his and the Jawoyn peoples’ physical and spiritual safety. These examples, all from outside North America, show the way that our conceptual framework for preserving the cultural heritage of humankind can and should expand to encompass a more diverse set of conservation professionals and community stakeholders, but also a more diverse understanding of what is important to conserve.
Whose objects are we conserving?
Last year, I had the privilege of working with a group of young curatorial students at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Curating the Archive and the Iziko Museums of South Africa. Only three months before, the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes had been toppled from its perch at the university following student protest. It was just weeks after the hate crime that left nine African Americans dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged killer had worn the Confederate flag, and the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid era South Africa, the latter two synonymous with white supremacy. We were talking about whether there was a symbol that all South Africans could embrace and call their own. After a few moments of silence, one of the white South African male students suggested, “the land.” None of the black students in the class responded. Under apartheid, land ownership was a primarily white privilege. But these black South African students, the generation of so-called “Born Frees,” the first born after apartheid, still could not claim land as either property or symbol.
The Preamble to our Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice states that our primary goal is the “preservation of cultural property.” But whose property? As conservators, we often speak of collections as our own—“my collection” or “my site”—even though they they do not belong to us. But to whom do collections and sites belong? Do they belong to the institutions and individuals who had the political, economic and lawful means to collect them, or do they also belong to the original makers and users? Two United States federal laws enacted in 1990 complicated the concept of ownership of objects that might come to belong to someone other than the original maker. The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) asserted that artists hold moral rights and authorship over their own works no matter who legally owns them; and it gives artists the right to pursue legal action against those who compromise either the physical or conceptual integrity of their works. Also passed the same year as VARA was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that provided a process for museums to return human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects to descendants of their original makers and users.
In the twenty-six years since these laws have been enacted, our profession has been forced to change its practices, engaging artists and Native American communities in collections management and conservation treatments in unprecedented ways. Not all of these interactions are comfortable or collaborative, but these legal mandates have forced us to confront the fact that the collections we call our own in fact came from elsewhere, and from someone else. In the field of modern and contemporary art conservation, the recognition of the moral right of the original maker has driven new and creative forms of documentation and information sharing about the material requirements, but more importantly, the conceptual requirements of art works. It has also resulted in collaborative partnerships between conservators and artists, with the conservators often entrusted with ensuring the preservation of the conceptual integrity of the artist’s work, rather than simply its physical integrity. Unfortunately, this same creativity, resolve and belief in the primacy of preserving the conceptual integrity of Native American objects is taken less seriously by our profession other than in a few institutions. Native American communities are rarely treated with the same respect that modern and contemporary artists are in the museum, except for in a few institutions.
To make sense of this lack of parity, we must confront the unequal ways that objects come into an institution for collection, conservation and display. The fields of anthropology and museum studies, have for the past several decades, acknowledged the fact that their disciplines were complicit in the colonial and imperial projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anthropology, with its scientific method of writing ethnographies and collecting ethnographic objects, was predicated on the idea that certain cultures would soon be destroyed, and those histories, traditions and objects required documentation, categorization and preservation. Since the 1970s, anthropologists have been working to recognize and engage with the fact that their field was implicated in the annihilation of certain kinds of stories and in the oppression of peoples they categorized as “other” or “lesser.” Scholars in museum studies have acknowledged that the museum was fully embedded in the colonial and imperial enterprise, and its daily processes of collecting, curating and yes, conserving objects perpetuated this colonialism and racism, and asserted the dominance of white Euro-American cultures over others.
But we as conservators have yet to engage in a conversation that has been happening beyond our field for nearly half a century. Because we, too, were implicated.
Consider the work of the giants of our field, George Leslie Stout and Rutherford Gettens. Between 1928 and 1930, they developed methodologies, techniques and materials to be used on a Harvard University expedition to Western China that had the express intent of removing wall paintings from ancient sites for the Fogg Museum; in their writings on the subject, both Stout and Gettens were unsettled by the idea of tearing objects from their original contexts, and and the damage that this might cause, but the fact remains that their research and technical knowledge was essential to the larger imperial project of removing cultural heritage from the Chinese, who were thought incapable of preserving it. As conservators, we have always assumed that our technical skills and knowledge will be used for a greater good, but what Stout and Gettens recognized nearly a century ago was that these same skills and knowledge could be deployed in more sinister ways. So we were implicated in these troubling practices, and by not acknowledging our past, we still are.
So to say in our Code of Ethics that our primary goal is the preservation of property affirms our responsibility to the now legal owner. It is to tacitly accept the violence which has systematically removed and disenfranchised people from their cultural heritage. We accept that the cultural property we now steward is housed in buildings erected on land legally taken from Native American and First Nations peoples, the same peoples whose representation in positions of museum leadership today is statistically zero. By abiding by the term cultural property rather than heritage, we also forget the fact that property once did not just concern objects and sites. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, whose monument still stands in Baltimore City, wrote on March 6, 1857 in the Dred Scott decision that any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, was not a citizen of the United States. He also affirmed the right of slave owners to claim their slaves as property. It is this legacy that activists are responding to by tagging Confederate monuments. It is this legacy that we preserve by removing the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Why Does Conservation Matter?
Today, cultural heritage is regularly in the headlines for its destruction, not its conservation. The destruction of archaeological sites and art objects captures the public’s attention rather than the bloodshed, forced migration and trauma of hundreds of thousands of people from these same places. Shortly after the recapture of Palmyra, Syria, from Islamic State extremists in March of this year, there was discussion of restoring the ancient edifices razed during occupation. But why do these places and objects matter when there are so many urgent crises? Why is their conservation and preservation needed? Because cultural heritage, not cultural property, can still be claimed by even those communities that have been traumatized and marginalized, and systematically and legally oppressed and annihilated for generations. As long as a tangible link exists between people and their past, there remains hope for a more just and dignified present and future.
Consider Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project, which reclaims the forgotten domestic spaces of peoples enslaved in the United States from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Sleeping here affirms that these places and these people matter.
Consider the 2015 return of the name Denali, “The Great One”, to the mountain sacred to native Alaskans, one hundred and nineteen years after both the land and the name were taken from them by the United States government.
Consider the Multaka or “meeting point” program which provides Arabic-speaking tours of sites and objects from Iraq and Syria at the Berlin Museums so that refugees can see glimpses of a home they may never be able to return to.
As long as these tangible sites and objects exist, there is evidence that people were here, that their histories, their memories and their past mattered, and that they are still here, still matter, and will continue to matter in the future. Our role as conservators can and should be to protect and conserve these tangible links, to affirm our belief in the dignity and human rights of all people. But we cannot approach the preservation of cultural heritage with the naïve statement that “all lives matter” or “all cultural heritage matters”, because history has shown us again and again that some lives, and some cultural heritage has been allowed to matter far more than others’. If we believe that conservation has a role to play in pursuing social justice, then it means changing the way we work. It means recognizing that we are stewards of collections through historical and political circumstance; that our authority can be both utilized for the cause of equality, but also abused. It also means that while we may be authorized to physically conserve collections, they and the histories and stories they represent also belong to the people who claim them. Instead, our work has to support and make possible the right of people to tell, sing and perform their own narratives of their own cultural heritage.
Our profession is at a turning point. We can maintain the status quo as the world changes around us, making us even less vital to the urgent concerns of the day. Or we can acknowledge our own past, and begin to think and work differently in the present. What is at stake here is not what conservation is, but what conservation could be.
Conservation in the twenty-first century can no longer just be about objects. Conservation also has to be about the people whose lives are inscribed on them.
 Dhar, S. “Challenges in the context of the living sacred tradition of Mahayana Buddhism”. The object in context: Contributions to the 2006 IIC Congress, Munich, 2006: 151-155.  Thorn, A. “Access denied: Restricted access to indigenous cultural sites.” Conservation and Access: Contributions to the 2008 IIC Congress, London, 2008: 209-213.
 Balachandran, S. “Object Lessons: The Politics of Preservation and Museum Building in Western China in the Early Twentieth Century.” International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2007): 1-32.
The theme of this year’s annual meeting focused on disasters and the unexpected in conservation. However, in her talk, Sanchita Balachandran, conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, focused not on emergencies threatening the collections we care for, but, instead, on a crisis within the field of conservation itself: the crippling lack of diversity in our profession.
In one sense, conservators are very aware of the problem. As Balachandran pointed out, we are trained to recognize the intangible as well as the tangible values inherent in the objects we treat. Implicit in this training is the fact that, as conservators, we have the power to erase history.
What happens when that type of power is wielded by a small, homogenous group? Graduate school prerequisites require applicants to have spent a significant amount of time gaining experience, largely through unpaid internships, which effectively excludes people from less affluent backgrounds – and by extension, certain minority populations. Similarly, people from these backgrounds may be less willing or able to make such drastic sacrifices for a field where the job opportunities after prolonged graduate study are low-paying and scarce. This limits the field as a whole, since more diverse groups have been proven to be more innovative and more productive.
The lack of diversity also has a more problematic effect on our work. When we treat an object, we choose which tangible and intangible values to retain, and which to discard. In doing so, we privilege certain types of objects and treatments. How do we approach the issue of Confederate monuments in Baltimore that were spray-painted with the slogan, “Black lives matter”? Should the slogan be removed?
Balachandran argued that we must confront the unequal ways in which objects come to institutions; museum processes were created by a colonial framework, from which conservation itself is not exempt. If nothing else, museums and libraries exist on land taken from Native American peoples. Museums must focus on cultural heritage, as opposed to cultural property, and work to rebuild connections between objects and the communities from which they were taken.
This issue of diversity is hardly a new problem. The people who become conservators largely come from a similar racial, cultural, and socio-economic background, and tend to be overwhelmingly female. However, by raising the subject in the annual meeting, Balachandran paved the way for a real discussion on how the field can encourage the participation of people of all backgrounds. At least, that is my hope as a fledgling conservator: that this will serve as a clarion call to the AIC board, graduate programs, and administrators to reflect upon their roles as gatekeepers to the field and to implement real changes to make our profession more inclusive. The fact that Sanchita Balachandran got a well-deserved standing ovation leads me to believe that my hopes are shared by others.
Edited to add: Read the full text of the talk at Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis, posted by Sanchita Balachandran.