Winter Collections Management Intern

When flood waters hit Iowa in 1993, The Des Moines Center of Art was on ground high enough to protect the art center from immediate danger. However, when the municipal water-purifying plant lost power/was damaged, the streets raging with flood waters were of no help to The Des Moines Center of Art. The museum had to truck in thousands of gallons of water each day to maintain steady relative humidity levels to protect The Des Moines Center of Artcollections from irreversible damage.

With the rising snow accumulation levels on everyone’s mind in the Virginia area, we can all relate to the dangers of winter weather. At theB&ORailroadMuseum in Baltimore, MD, that danger became reality in February of 2003. The roof of the museum collapsed under the strain of gathering twenty-five inches of snow within a twenty-four hour period. Half of themuseum’s Roundhouse roof collapsed on the oldest and most comprehensive collection of American railroad equipment and artifacts.The museum has since estimated that it would take at least six years for the objects and locomotives to be repaired.

Disasters, both natural and man-made, occuron a daily basis.However, not everyone believes a disaster, whether large or small scale, will directly affect them. We are also not able to fathom the destruction and heartache a disaster can cause.The museum field, looked upon by the general public as protectors of our cultural resources, has to not onlybelieve that disasters can happen to their buildings and collections, but prepare and train their staff to help mitigate them.If cultural resourceinstitutions do not prepare for the worst case scenario, they risk damaging not only their most important assets–their collections–but also risk putting visitors and staff in danger and hurting their professional reputations.

For my third internship here at Stratford Hall, I have taken on the task of updating and rewriting the institution’s Disaster Plan.It has proven to be a challenging yet incredibly educational experience, especially for someone who is an aspiring Collection’s Manager.Even as someone who cares for collection objects on a daily basis, it is astounding how manyways pieces in the collection can be harmed and how much responsibility it is to keep them safe.Objects aside, a museum must also plan for the safety of its staff and visitors.Everything from responding to a small injury to reacting to a bomb threat must be considered and carefully planned for.Luckily for me, disaster planning is a big business in the museum world so there is an unlimited amount of resources out there and a very willing staff right here to help.

A Disaster Plan addresses the prevention and response to natural disasters and risks an organization is most likely to face.Most plans cover disaster: mitigation and prevention; preparedness; response; and recovery. Disaster mitigation and prevention attempts to eliminate or reduce the probability and effects of disasters by making large-scale improvements like:

  • building structures to withstand earthquakes or floods;
  • removing trees that are close to buildings; and
  • installing security and fire suppression systems

or things as small as:

  • keeping gutters clean;
  • periodically testing generators;
  • regularly servicing equipment; and
  • performing routine building inspections.

Disaster preparedness is simply being asorganized and equipped as possible to immediately respond to a disaster in order to save lives, minimize damage, and facilitate the recovery stage.A few examples of disaster preparedness include:

  • providing training for staff;
  • performing practice drills; and
  • having procedures in place for saving high-priority assets to the organization.

Disaster response provides temporary care and relief to victims and ensures avoidable casualties and property damage does not occur.Examples include:

  • following evacuation procedures;
  • having easy access to disaster packs with emergency supplies and instructions; and
  • using clear communication and a quick response time for getting emergency responders on the scene.

Finally, disaster recovery includes those tasks which return life and daily operation of the organization to normal or at least to an improved level.Some important examples include:

  • salvaging and conserving the collection objects;
  • receiving relief from grants, donations, and government funds
  • restoring the buildings; and
  • reinstalling the objects and reopening the exhibits to the public.

Too many cultural institutions do not have Disaster Plans in place, be it due to the lack of staff, time, or money, or pure naïveté and denial.However, even if you do have a plan, you cannot always account for all the possibilities or grasp the potential damage that could occur.Below are a few more examples of museum and historic structure disasters.


  • The BuckinghamPalace has caught on fire not once, but twice. In 1992 a fire broke out that damaged more than 100 rooms and numerous items from the Royal Collection.The fire started because of a spotlight shining on a curtain in the Queen’s Private Chapel.Then in 2002 a smaller fire broke out but luckily spared artwork and historic treasures.

  • Just last year the Historic Archives of Cologne, Germany suddenly collapsed due to subway construction beneath the building.One of the only collections in Germany to survive World War II completely intact, the collection spanned more than a thousand years worth of documents, maps, drawings, photographs, books, and artifacts.



  • In June of 2008 the University of Iowa Museum of Art had flood damages of $5.5 million to the museum building and $500,000 to its contents.Due to a well conceived and implemented flood plan, the museum was able to evacuate 80% of their collections in less than four hours – that’s over 10,000 objects!!And fortunately, there was no lasting damage to the rest of the collection.

– Kathryn “Kat” Marshall, Collections Management Intern