Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Museum Disaster Preparedness Almost put the test in Santa Barbara


I was so relieved to read that the wildfire raging out of control and coming to within 4 miles of the city center of Santa Barbara, California was finally suppressed. The wonderful Santa Barbara Museum of Art lies at the heart of the city and I was worried about the beautiful antiquities I photographed there several years ago. Among them is a marvelous sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull from the 2nd century CE, a well-preserved bronze head of a bearded Gallic Man from the mid-3rd century CE, a lovely Fayum portrait from the 2nd century CE and even a dramatic bronze head of Alexander the Great from the 3rd century CE.

Although thousands of people in surrounding homes had been evacuated I heard nothing about any provisions to preserve the art collection. I hoped that the director of the Santa Barbara museum had attended one of the Getty's disaster preparedness workshops and that a plan was in place and activated.

The Getty held the first disaster preparedness workshop in January 1992.

The directors of eight California museums gathered at the GCI in Marina del Rey and at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu to hear first-hand accounts of how institutions in Chicago, Louisiana, and San Francisco coped during real-life disasters, and to learn about the Getty's comprehensive emergency plans and drills.

The workshop included a tour of the J. Paul Getty Museum to view emergency preparations, including measures developed to protect every object in its collections, whether on display or in storage, from earthquake damage. The Museum developed its first emergency plan in 1986. A year later, it joined with the GCI [Getty Conservation Institute] and the University of Southern California in a two-year research project to evaluate the effectiveness of its seismic damage mitigation measures. The results of that study, available from the GCI Scientific Program, include general guidelines for evaluating the seismic vulnerability of objects.

In addition, the GCI, along with the National Academy of Sciences and the Earthquake Engineers Research Institute, has participated in selected emergency response missions in the wake of such disasters as Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake. It has also assisted in missions organized to cope with disasters at individual institutions, including the flood in the Carillo Gil Museum in 1987, and the 1988 fires at the Louisiana State Museum and the Library of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy of Sciences) - The Getty Newsletter, Spring 1992


Much emphasis has been placed on earthquake damage prevention because of the frequency of quakes in southern California but wildfires are an annual threat there as well. Although quake damage can often be repaired, many antiquities like the Fayum portrait would be irrevocably lost in a fire so I do hope equal attention has been given to catastrophic fire preparedness.

[Images by Mary Harrsch]
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