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Building An Emergency Response Network For BC Collections

MOA staff working alongside city crews to prevent water from flowing into exhibition areas during the 2014 flood. Photo courtesy of MOA Collections department.

It’s 3:00 pm and a 10-foot-long water main in front of your museum bursts. Within minutes, it sends a torrent through your front doors, into the lobby, and onward to the collections areas. Half an hour later, city staff arrive to turn the water off, and over thirty staff members in the building jump to assist in doing whatever it takes to stop the water from flowing into the exhibition areas. That was the scene at MOA one winter’s day in January 2014.

As horrific as this situation was, a lot of other factors could have made it even worse, such as if the water main had broken in the middle of the night, with no museum staff available to jump to action immediately. Working against us, however, was the fact that MOA did not have a finalized and rehearsed disaster plan in place, and as a result the staff that were on hand resembled 30 well-meaning and passionately committed headless chickens running around. 

This event was the catalyst for an initiative that a group of conservators on the west coast have been working on for the past two years: the development of the BC Heritage Response Network (BC HERN). 

When it comes to the salvage of collections following a disaster, many of us plan to call on museum volunteers and professionals who are geographically close to us to assist. The value of a large number of helping hands is significant, but in all likelihood very few responders will actually have had recent training or direct experience with the salvage of collections. Their labour is valued, but must be managed and directed. A further critical error many of us share in our planning is the assumption that those we rely on will be available when we need them. This leads us to the second key event that signalled the need to develop BC HERN. 

Conservators Ida Pohoriljakova and Beth Boyce removing soot from collections at the U’mista Cultural Centre. Photo by Heidi Swierenga.

In the summer of 2013 there was an accidental fire at the U’mista Cultural Centre, in their Potlatch Gallery. The centre is located in the small community of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, an isolated island off the coast of British Columbia. Damage from the fire itself was minimized thanks to the activation of the sprinkler system and the efforts of the volunteer re department. There was, however, extensive soot and water damage to the collection. Conservators from the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) in Victoria, MOA and the Museum at Campbell River rallied to assist the U’mista Cultural Centre staff in the immediate recovery after the fire. Collections salvage was significantly delayed by the absence of an organized response plan. First, a large quantity of supplies had to be procured and packed up. Second, coordination and authorization for conservators to commit their time and travel expenses from the three responding institutions was uneven, further delaying action. 

The fire at U’mista highlighted the need for a formalized management-supported infrastructure that could be shared by the larger cultural institutions, in support both of one another and of the smaller museums in BC. To this end, MOA, partnering with the RBCM and the Burnaby Village Museum, obtained a grant from the Museums Assistance Program (MAP) of the federal Department of Canadian Heritage to undertake three key initiatives: 1) to undertake research, develop and deliver a workshop on collections salvage response to the BC conservation community; 2) to build two mobile salvage emergency response kits; and, 3) most critically, to lay the groundwork for the development of BC HERN for arts and culture institutions. 

Sample of salvage objects handled at an emergency response workshop held at the RBCM in October 2016. Photo by Heidi Swierenga.

A workshop on emergency response and salvage was organized by conservators from the MAP grant’s partnering institutions with guidance from the Canadian Conservation Institute. It was delivered in Victoria in October 2016 to a group of over 30 conservation and collections management professionals. The theme of the workshop was “Train the Trainers,” with the intent to enhance the skill level of the people who would be called upon to assist in salvage response, providing them with the knowledge required to train people from their own institution and/or community in emergency response and collections salvage. 

The two mobile emergency response kits were assembled using the experience that we gained from the U’mista fire. These kits can be used to create mobile labs that provide dry and clean work environments outside an impacted institution. To provide two efficient deployment locations, one kit is located on the Lower Mainland and the other on Vancouver Island. The final and by far most challenging initiative—to develop the BC HERN—is well underway. The first step was to build a network of skilled individuals who would have the support of their institutions to respond to a localized collections emergency, and to this end a Statement of Cooperation was signed by BC’s larger arts and culture institutions that have conservation staff.

Senior administrators and directors from MOA, RBCM, the City of Burnaby, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Vancouver, and the Vancouver Archives have agreed to the following: 

On the basis of equality and reciprocity, the institutions will explore areas of potential collaboration with respect to the following activities: a) forming and developing a BC Heritage Emergency Response Network for arts and culture organizations; b) offering assistance and immediate response to an institution’s request for salvage assistance from trained staff at other institutions following a localized emergency, without initial expectation of cost-recovery; c) developing strategies for cost-recovery by the institutions for costs relating to staff, supplies, travel and accommodation following either a localized or generalized emergency; and d) participating in joint disaster response planning and preparedness activities. 

This agreement formalizes the objective to work collaboratively, proactively and quickly to facilitate emergency response and collection salvage beyond our own institutions. It also allows for quick action while critical questions around such issues as cost recovery and liability are resolved.

The remaining challenge is to determine how this network can be broadened to include smaller museums and cultural centres throughout the province—institutions that do not have conservation resources. It is clear that the infrastructure and ongoing support of such a network must be sustainable and centrally coordinated. The involvement of the BC Museums Association, as an established networking and membership- driven organization, is key to this success. Possible connections with the larger national organizations such as the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Association for Conservation will also be explored. 

Responding to an institutional emergency that has resulted in damage to collections is a daunting task, even for the best of work teams armed with well-practiced and effective emergency response plans. An established and well-supported BC HERN will benefit museums across the province through access to ongoing training, critical collections salvage supplies and a network of local and distant response teams. 

BC HERN Working Group: Heidi Swierenga, Senior Conservator, MOA; Elisabeth Czerwinski, Conservator, Burnaby Village Museum; Kasey Lee, Senior Conservator, RBCM.