In light of this year’s conference theme, Practical Philosophy or Making Conservation Work, the Sustainability Committee would like to highlight how something as intangible as climate change directly affects the practical side of conservation.
This is 1 of 3 in the series of blog posts that explores this relationship. In this one we ask the question “how has climate change affected conservators in the work they do?”
Climate change affects everyone, including conservators. For the past few years I’ve been researching sustainability and conservation. Making sustainability seem relevant on a practical level is one of the most challenging parts about convincing others to change their habits.
Much like damage to artifacts due to improper handling or prolonged light exposure, the consequences of climate change becomes more apparent once you see what you’ve been avoiding, the worst-case scenarios. What specific events have already happened where extreme weather and climate change negatively affected how conservators care for art and cultural heritage? Since this year’s conference is held in tropical Miami, this post focuses on weather-related water damage and how it affects conservators and the work they do.
It’s no surprise that floods, storms, and hurricanes have adversely affected many cultural institutions. While many storage facilities raise their lowest shelves a few inches off the ground, take into account the following examples as a cautionary tale of what could happen, even to the most prepared institution.
Photos of water-damaged artifacts at the National Guard Militia Museum.
Photo source: Ashley Peskoe | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com.
The National Guard Militia Museum in New Jersey experienced severe flood damage during Hurricane Sandy when five feet of water got into their collections storage site. The damage was extensive and difficult to assess. How do you assign value to irreplaceable photographs and handwritten letters? When the “conservation treatment for each large flag would cost between $20,000 to $30,000” how do you prioritize it over other objects? What about the “465 oral history interviews from veterans dating back to World War II, which got wet in the storm”? After the hurricane even the records of these oral histories “were glued to the floor,” said assistant curator Carol Fowler.
The flooded National September 11 Memorial Museum, 2012.
Photo Source: Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company.
At the same time the National September 11 Memorial Museum, then still under construction, was “filled with at least seven feet of water during the [Hurricane Sandy] storm.” The flooding had nearly immersed two fire trucks, while the symbolic last column, the steel cross, and the survivor’s stairway were all also partially submerged. And this damage happened after years of conservation and climate controlled storage.
The hurricane damaged Lone Star Flight Museum.
Photo Source: Property of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Similarly in 2008 Hurricane Ike devastated the Lone Star Flight Museum “with 6 to 8 feet of saltwater.” While some of the planes were flown out in time, “all the aircraft that remained behind sustained some degree of damage [while] the restored Jeeps and other vehicles were under water.[…] The briny brew corroded their metal frames and engines and soaked their wooden ribs.” Not only planes were damaged but small artifacts as well – “Bits and pieces of various displays — flags, uniforms, photographs — were recovered from the muck. Most were not.” Even their repair shop, with specialty tools and equipment for aircraft repair was “all gone,” meaning immediate conservation work was severely limited. To make a bad situation worse, “the museum had no flood insurance, [so] it will depend heavily on donations to recover.” Larry Gregory, the museum’s president, stated “right now we’ve got to devote all our resources to staying in business,” so routine conservation and maintenance took a back seat to long-term recovery.
The flooded exterior of the River and Rowing Museum.
Photo Source: from the 2014 article “Weather forces museums to close” by Simon Stephens.
Even annual flooding can be unpredictable. Last year the River and Rowing Museum, the Spelthorne Museum, the Brocklands Museum, and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, all in different parts of England, had to temporarily close due to rising flood waters. Catherine Yoxall, marketing manager of the River and Rowing Museum, said that while the museum was lucky since it is purposely built on stilts, “our problem is that we are unable to get anywhere near the building and it simply wouldn’t be safe to expect our staff to try to get in.”
Photos of the 2008 Iowa flood during the recovery process (left, center) and during the flood itself (right).
Photo Source: © 2015 National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
In 2008 the Iowa Flood flooded the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library with 10 feet of water causing between eight and eleven million dollars worth of damage to five museum-owned buildings, including 20-25% of their collection. This included “6,000 volumes [of books and] one thousand sixty-seven flood-damaged artifacts.” And the damage occurred after many days of flood preparation where much of their collection was taken off site or moved to a higher floor within the building. All told the museum will need to be rebuilt, costing an additional $25 million.
Even run of the mill thunderstorms can cause incredible damage. The Hurnonia Museum, a local history museum in Midland, Ontario, had survived two back-to-back thunderstorms in August 2014. Since “the entire floor of the museum was covered in an inch of water,” it fared relatively well in comparison to the museums previously mentioned, except for the 19th century rug that was on the floor as well as other low to the ground objects. This is especially troubling because the small museum had a new roof installed just a few months prior after a leak had caused its ceiling to collapse. And with their modest budget they were just hoping “to earn what we earned (last year) or better,” which after closures and emergency costs they could not do.
Conservation as a profession is a balance between the practical and the theoretical knowledge. Climate change and its effects should be directly tied to emergency preparedness and preventive conservation, and thus to our professional ethics and mandate in that our goal is to care for objects in perpetuity. The practical side of our ethical decision-making is often understated, if even mentioned at all. Perhaps this is because there is no tangible, immediate reward to disaster prevention, or perhaps it is because the process is cumulative and ongoing. In either case it is none the less part of the foundation of what we do as conservation professionals.
When thinking about climate change and conservation, we can take Huronia Museum executive director Nahanni Born’s words to heart, “when you take (an artifact) in, you promise to take care of it forever.” How have you and your organization been negatively affected by climate change? What have you done to mitigate this? What actions can you take, large or small, to have a positive, cumulative effect to mitigate climate change’s effect on your work?
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