On Monday, October 29, New York City was hit by Hurricane Sandy, leading to mass blackouts and flooding in Brooklyn and most of lower Manhattan. Among the areas that were particularly hard hit was Chelsea, home to many of the city’s art galleries and artist studios. A week later, the AIC Collections Emergency Response Teams (CERT) held two back-to-back sessions of the Consortium on Recovery of Works of Art Damaged by Flooding at the Museum of Modern Art. The meeting was filled to overflowing with museum, gallery, and conservation professionals and artists who were still reeling from the disaster they had witnessed.
The Consortium served as a means for conservators to guide recovery efforts across New York City. Lisa Elkin, Director of Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), started off by reminding attendees of the resources open to them, not least of which were the conservators around them. Then Kala Harinarayanan, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at the AMNH, reminded those present that however concerned they may be for collections, their health and safety must remain paramount. She pointed out that surge waters could contain all kinds of hazardous materials, while buildings may have become unstable after the storm. These are important things to keep in mind as we begin recovery efforts. She advised having a companion when re-entering a disaster site, using communication devices, and using personal protective equipment as advisable.
At this point, Beth Nunan, Associate Conservator at the AMNH took over. She covered the nuts and bolts of actually running a successful recovery, stressing the importance of planning prior to beginning the effort. She reminded everyone that documentation was key – not just of the damage to the site and objects, but also of the priorities, logic, and work-flow of the recovery effort. Beth also discussed ways to prioritize damaged objects, which could include business records that could be critical to the continued functioning of a business; storage, and inexpensive sources for needed materials. Caitlin O’Grady, Conservation Fellow at the University of Delaware, concluded the session by discussing various recovery techniques and their suitability to different scenarios, taking us through the merits and drawbacks of freezing versus air drying material, and discussing issues of mold and treatment. The entire presentation can be viewed here.
At the end of the meeting, attendees adjourned to a separate room to discuss more specific problems faced by those in the audience. This was where the true magnitude of the problem became clear. One attendee was dealing with forty-five different insurance companies, none of which had given permission to move the artworks to a stable area. Another had soaked canvases and no space to dry them flat. As questions arose, the conservators in the room worked together to find solutions to common problems. Eventually the room broke up into the various specialties, with paper conservators in one corner, paintings conservators in another, and so on, each dealing directly with attendee concerns.
The Consortium equipped all those dealing with recovery with a broad base of knowledge relating to the differe issues involved. In addition, it served as a gateway to getting involved with recovery efforts throughout New York, as among other things, attendees had the chance to sign up to volunteer their conservation services.
Museum of Modern Art – Hurricane Sandy: Conservation Resources
AIC CERT – Hurricane Response Google Group
Author’s note: A version of this post has also be posted to the NYU Conservation Center blog.