Preventive conservation and disaster preparedness

Barbara Heller, Terry Birkett and Michael Kociemba


The Detroit Institute of Arts has been implementing a long-range storage renovation program which has included both environmental improvements as well as rehousing and preventive conservation upgrades. As a by product of this ongoing program, our collections were adequately protected during the tornado that struck just north of the museum on the 2nd of July 1997. This natural disaster not only caused water to back-up in the storm drains and flood five art storage rooms, but also downed numerous trees causing a power outage. The city had to shut down the electrical relay station that served the museum in order to repair the downed power lines. Because of our quick response and the preventative conservation measures already in place, no damage was sustained by the collection.

Three months later on the 15th of October a man-made disaster occurred that did cause some minor damage to the collection. A contractor cut a water supply line in between two floors of the museum which caused water to enter a storage room through a comer crack in the ceiling. Notwithstanding, due to our twice daily room checks we were able to identify the problem and to respond before major damage occurred. While the preventative measures were only partially effective, they mitigated the extent of damage that could have been sustained.

Over the years we have improved some of our storage methods, In particular, for large oversized sculptures we have been replacing 2 x 4’s or wooden skids with custom-built platforms or pallets with individually form fitted and padded cradles designed to support the object. These accept a pallet jack and were devised to limit handling as well as for safe transport and installation for both the object and the art handler. All of the sculptures stored in the flooded storeroom happened to be the largest, heaviest and most difficult to handle. However, because all of the sculptures were on these pallets, we were able to move all of them out of the room in less than 30 minutes, enabling the building staff to remove the standing water. The failure in the second storeroom was due to twenty year old polyethylene storage rack covers that could not’ support the weight of the water that had accumulated. A rigid decking material has not been added underneath the polyethylene.

Preventative conservation measures continue to be an integral part of each storage project. The ongoing conservation program includes the proper care and maintenance of the collection by limiting light exposure, dust and airborne pollutants, and temperature and relative humidity fluctuations; training of staff on collections care and handling; twice daily inspections in the galleries and storage; and the safe display and storage of works of art which include mounts or supports, vitrines, microclimates, light shielding, barriers or electronic devices and pest control. The successes and failures of the methods used by the DIA disaster preparedness and preventative conservation plan will be discussed during the presentation.

1998 | Washington DC