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Disaster reaction planning progress

Susannah Edmunds
Senior Conservator, Paintings Section, Conservation Department

Over twenty five years ago the we conservators converged upon Florence to: deal with the appalling damage caused by a flash flood. Recently, in the UK alone, a number of disasters to cultural property have made news headlines. Among the Minster, Hampton Court, Uppark House and the Bourlet Warehouse, which were all fires and the V&A flood. Such disasters to 'cultural property' have led to an increase awareness of the need to plan for disaster in order to reduce its toll. The purpose of this article is to give a brief chronological outline of some of the work being done.

Sir Henry Irving as Matthias Museum no. S70-1988

Sir Henry Irving as Matthias in 'The Bells' by Leopold Lewis (Museum no. S70-1988) (click image for larger version)

In 1987 the United Nations passed resolution 42/169 to establish 'The International decade for Natural Disaster Reduction' to be  launched in January 1990. In 1989 Barbara Roberts (ex Getty Museum Conservator) Decorative Arts and Sculpture, now an independent consultant) was requested by the ICOM Committee for Conservation to form a Standing Committee to make recomendations on the subject of Natural Hazard Reduction for Cultural Property following aims:-

The improvement of levels of co-ordination.
The encouragement of formation of teams, on a national basis.
The publication of basic information

An outline ten year programme was agreed. The programme for the first four years is as follows:

1989/90: to establish a core of concerned professionals to join the Standing committee and to promote the establishment of liaison between Governments, professionals and individual specialists.
1991/93: to work to establish co-operation among governmental and museological bodies.

The Committee Barbara choose was deliberately spread world-wide and each conservator has a different area of specialization. I was asked to join with Paintings as my specialization.

In 1990 the Advisory and Executive council of ICOM decided that the standing committee should become a full ad hoc committee reporting directly to the Executive Committee rather than to the Conservation Committee.

Early in 1990 with our daunting programme in mind, I suggested to the Chairman of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC) that 'Disaster' might be a good subject for a conference. In December 1990 I was asked to help Diana O'Sullivan (UKIC Executive Committee member) organize a 'Disaster' conference which would take place on October 18th 1991 during the week of Restoration '91 a trade fair with concurrent conferences, jointly organized by RAI Exhibitions and UKIC. This altered the envisaged parameters, as we had half the time to planned only one day in which to cover planning for the reaction to disaster for all the conservation disciplines.

We began to envisage a day of talks by those responsible for museum, gallery and institute disaster planning as a background to workshop/poster sessions organized by different conservation disciplines; each would demonstrate first aid methods for that discipline; e.g. wrapping books for freeze drying.

First, we needed to learn everything we could about he subject. We started to gather literature and compile bibliography. A huge amount has been written about disaster planning, but relatively little relating to first aid for objects. Who were the experts we could consult? We began to contact planners and those conservators who knew to have had an experience of disaster. In particular, I talked to Hilary Bracegirdle, who is writing the disaster plan for the V&A. It soon became clear that, while some plans e.g. those of the National Trust, were advanced in implementation, many, including those of the V&A were embryonic. Many of the planners appeared to be working in near isolation and therefore to an extent were each reinventing the wheel. Most conservators have some experience of dealing with disaster but usually limited to one type of object and one type of disaster. Clearly, one way of approaching the subject would be to work as groups, pooling experience and knowledge. We agreed to try and form working groups, one of planners, the rest loosely based on the UKIC subgroups.

By this time I was leaning heavily on the help of V&A colleagues: Dr Ashley-Smith kindly gave constant back up seeing a long term benefit for the Museum; others agreed to act as group co-ordinators; yet others gave advice.

In June the beginnings of a Planner's Group met for the first time, twenty one people from sixteen London based museums, galleries and institutes. At that meeting Stewart Kidd, Director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA) offered to extend the library of the FPA to include bibliographic material for disasters other than fire. He also suggested that the papers and workshop handouts to be written for the conference and which we had in-tended gathering into a loose-leafed 'Fact Pack,' would make an excellent publication. From that group we also culled the core of speakers for the conference.

UKIC agreed to publish the 'Fact Pack,' as soon after the conference as possible. The Conservation Unit and an insurance company agreed to fund it. For the conference we would only produce what handouts we could achieve in the time.

In July the 'Paintings Disaster Group' met. Those eighteen conservators subsequently formed subgroups, to work upon: a list of materials and equipment to take to a disaster; first aid principles for water, fire, chemically and physically damaged paintings, and a bibliography. On this work were to be based posters and handouts for the workshop and the paintings entry for the publication. The full group met regularly. Groups from other Conservation disciplines began working to a similar pattern.

The October conference was opened by Lawrence Brandes (Museums and Galleries Commission) and chaired by Richard Davies (Director of Technical Services, English Heritage). Stewart Kidd set the scene with the first talk 'Why plan for Disasters?' a masterly resume. He included a frightening video of a fire's development and statistics of eighteen fires that have damaged UK cultural property since 1986, they caused the loss of one life and £310m. From the talks which followed there emerged a clear pattern of how to develop and implement plans. Between them Frank Howie (BM Natural History), Hilary Bracegirdle (V&A) and Sue Cackett (Science Museum) covered developing a plan: approach, risk analysis, prevention, call out and damage control. Edward Distelkamp (National Trust) then described some disasters and the resulting emergency plans now implemented at National Trust Properties. Fergus Reed (East Midlands Area Museum Council) explained how they have interrelated plans for a group of Museums. Joe Cowell (Royal Collection, Hampton Court) described setting up and training the salvage team and horrified us with the risks they ran rescuing objects from the fire there. Finally Sue Runyard (Museums and Galleries Commission) told us how to cope with the media.

Seven conservation groups produced workshop/posters and handouts covering First Aid for disasters to: Ceramics; Furniture-Wood; Metals; Paintings; Paper (Books and Archives); Sculpture; Textiles (Pest Control). They were manned during coffee, tea and lunch breaks so that delegates could ask questions. Considerable interest was shown and almost all handouts taken but relatively few questions were asked, probably because most of the delegates were planners rather than conservators.

Since the Conference, members of the Paintings group found they were being asked by other paintings conservators for detailed information of their work. They therefore agreed to organize a joint ABPR/ UKIC half day seminar on June 5th at the Courtauld Institute entitled 'Dealing with Disaster to Paintings.'

Meanwhile work on the UKIC publication 'Dealing with Disasters' is underway in earnest. It will be a loose leaf manual and will aim to give competent conservators enough guidance to enable him/her to deal with first aid for objects that have suffered fire, flood, chemical or physical damage following a disaster, both within and outside their normal areas of specialisation. Work is being done by the members of the ICOM ad hoc committee, co-ordinated by Barbara who, in particular has organized seminars on Disaster planning, prevention, mitigation etc. in both 1990 and 1991. The committee hopes to meet for the first time in autumn 1992. Finally, Hilary has written the components of a V&A disaster plan: risk analysis recipe; call-out chart; emergency procedures; induction checklist; accident report form and lists for disaster cupboards. The work of implementation rests with others and for the moment awaits the imminent appointment of a new Head of Safety and Security.