44th Annual Meeting – General Session: Lead by Example, Models to Follow, Track E, May 16, “PRICE: Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies,” by Sarah Stauderman

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.

Fire in Smithsonian Institution Building, by Gardner, Alexander 1821-1882, January 24, 1865, Smithsonian Archives – History Div, 37082 or MAH-37082.

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.

PRICE Structure, Powerpoint, S. Stauderman.
PRICE Structure, Powerpoint, S. Stauderman.

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!

44th Annual Meeting – Emergency Session, May 16, “Lighting a Fire: Initiating an Emergency Management Program,” by Rebecca Fifield

Instituting an emergency management program at your organization is hard. I don’t think anyone would ever argue that. And it’s not just about a written emergency plan. While this is a great place to start, and certainly integral to a complete program, it doesn’t inspire and excite. It doesn’t create an emergency preparedness culture. Rebecca Fifield, a Preservation Consultant and owner of Rebecca Fifield Preservation Services, spoke about several ways to ignite a planning effort and maintain momentum when starting an emergency management program at your institution.
First, create a vision. Don’t just update your phone tree. Get a budget line, meet with your local community, and set up training exercises. Asking for a premium plan built on best practices creates the greatest impact and helps staff get behind the change.
Next, refine and strengthen that vision by creating relationships with allies. Allies can make your project stronger by challenging assumptions, informing the project with their industry expertise, and using their connections to develop momentum around your idea. But how do we identify these allies? Are they our supervisors? Yes! If they haven’t considered it before now, educate your supervisor about how risk management and emergency preparedness go hand-in-hand and how they both are part of our professional responsibility. (See Marie Malaro’s A Legal Primer for Managing Museum Collections). Are our allies Conservators, Registrars, Collections Managers, Security, Facilities Managers, Curators, Educators, IT staff, Human Resources, Communications, and Development? YES TO ALL! Emergency preparedness efforts can often be attached to efforts such as the institutional audit process, health and safety initiatives, construction, or large-scale conservation projects. Start a talking campaign. Remember that a disaster effects every staff member, so it only makes sense to have them as part of your web of allies.
Set a time-sensitive goal. Put a time frame on preparedness to create a challenge, because it can be easy to keep putting off planning. Pose questions that reveal preparedness needs for specific institutional goals: Could there be a potential protest related to an upcoming exhibition? Will you be effected by the upcoming hurricane season? Are you in a region that often deals with large amounts of snow? Look at your historical record. Has your organization suffered a past emergency, and what was the impact on people and collections? Are you dealing with aging infrastructure? Survey your staff. Does everyone know their role in an emergency? These aren’t meant to be scare tactics. This is to make sure that the decision-makers at your institution are well-informed.
Connect with other institutions and your community. Reach out to similar organizations to your own and find out who’s on their planning team and their responsibilities. Take this time to establish an informational exchange. Meet other emergency managers in your region. Get involved with professional organizations such as Alliance for Response, as well as regional responders like the Virginia Association of Museum’s Emergency Response Teams and your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Encourage involvement from staff by having some of these organizations come to you for a talk or training exercises.
Be resilient in the face of negativity. We are all very busy and you may receive some push-back from management and staff. Use emergency management as an opportunity for situational leadership, which allows you to display your ability to lead for the future. It hones your persuasion skills, creates ties with operations and administration colleagues, and provides you with a ready opportunity for development that your current position may not provide. It may take months, and even years, to understand how your institution will function in an emergency, the decisions that will need to be made, and the conversations to confirm direction and readiness. Just remember, that time is as important as developing the plan itself.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting- Joint Objects and Archaeological Discussion Group Session, June 2, “Beyond the Field Lab: Emergency Conservation in the Granicus River Valley of Northwestern Turkey,” by Donna Strahan

The afternoon OSG/ADG session began with a fascinating talk by Donna Strahan, Conservator in the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that very successfully demonstrated the importance of cooperation and flexibility in the preservation of cultural property. Donna began by introducing the site of Troy, where she has spent many seasons as a field conservator.  Troy is excavated by a number of international institutions, but a single conservation lab treats the finds unearthed from all of the excavations. The large site provides ample opportunities for education, functioning as both an archaeological field school and a place for conservation training for an international group of students.  Each season there are between one and six conservators and up to four languages spoken in the lab.  Although language barriers can pose some difficulty, the varied training and experience of the conservators facilitates the exchange of ideas and re-evaluation of conservation practice.

In addition to treating finds from the site—an impressive 500-700 per year—the Troy lab is also called upon to do emergency treatment at neighboring sites in the Granicus River Valley.  Donna emphasized that emergency conservation is about triage and compromise.  The needs of the objects must be prioritized, but the decision of what gets treated outside of Troy is often tied to local politics. The help of the Troy team is often sought in response to or in anticipation of looting, an example of which is the Dedetepe Tumulus, dating to the 5th c. BCE.   In the course of their work, the Troy conservators discovered, among other things, the fingerprints of ancient robbers on the marble sarcophagus, painted marble beds, and a shattered alabaster vessel with resides of Tyrian purple; the latter may provide direct evidence of a funeral ceremony that involved dipping ribbons into purple dye and tying them around a vessel.  Donna then went on to describe several other Granicus River Valley projects:

  • The Polyxena Sarcophagus, with associated remains of a funeral cart
  • The Parion necropolis, where they found a physician’s burial that included a medicine box with arsenic and lead-containing pills (“a Roman Dr. Kevorkian,” Donna suggested)
  • The beautifully painted Çan Sarcophagus with interesting examples of damnatio memoriae, which looters broke into with a backhoe(!).
  • The sites and artifacts receiving emergency care from the Troy team are not always associated with ancient cultures—at the site of the WWI Battle of Gallipoli, a leather shoe was found with the remains of a foot still inside.  Although Donna suggested reburial, the Gallipoli Museum wanted the “object” on view as a reminder of the horrors of war.  Although Donna, and probably many of us in the audience, would consider reburial to be a more ethical decision, she reminded us how important it is to be sensitive to the customs and desires of the country you’re working in.

These case studies were wonderful illustrations of both the difficulties and benefits of emergency conservation.  Emergency excavations, Donna said, are rarely scientifically excavated, there is rarely time to plan, and you’re often working with unfamiliar people and objects.  However, without this important work, the wealth of information contained in these sites and artifacts might be lost entirely.  The finds from Granicus River Valley projects are regularly published in the Studia Troica, giving these objects (which generally languish in storage or worse) a place in the archaeological record.  At the end of her talk, Donna showed a recent picture of Dedeteppe Tumulus, completely destroyed by looters—a powerful reminder of just how essential emergency conservation can be.

In the question period, Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Harvard Art Museums, said that his rule of thumb is to generally make any modern damage to an object as invisible as possible.  He asked Donna if she considered inpainting the damage done by the looters with the backhoe.  Donna replied that she would not choose to inpaint for two reasons: she did not want observers to think that the conservators were “repainting” the sarcophagus, and she thought it was important to demonstrate just how much damage looting does.