When Disaster Strikes: Lessons Learned (and survived)

“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course.” — attributed to George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw’s quotation above, although humorous, does contain an element of truth when it comes to the reality of disaster planning for many institutions. Hopefully, the recent tragedy at the Brazil National Museum can act as a wake-up call to museums that the threat of disaster is real and any preparation before a disaster strikes will go a long way in mitigating damage.

When I first heard about Brazil’s loss my mind recalled the evening of December 17th, 2003. I received a phone call that the Oshawa Museum was on fire and I needed to attend the scene as soon as possible. Fortunately, in our case the damage was restricted to the office areas of the building, and largely spared the archival collection. However, the experience of dealing with a disaster of this scope taught me important lessons which I think would be useful to the museum community.

Have a disaster plan and update it regularly.

A current disaster plan is crucial to deploying a rapid response in the face of a disaster. At the very least have a list of staff contacts and local colleagues you can call on at any time of the day or night for help.

Set clear priorities.

Create a list of the most important artifacts in each room of the museum. Mark the significant artifacts in the archives with fluorescent stickers on their storage boxes for easy identification. As the first staff member on the scene, you may be asked by the fire personnel what they should save if possible.

I was able to direct efforts to the archival storage area which they immediately started to evacuate. It struck me later however, that because the archival holdings were stored in one room this was relatively easy decision to make. Had the fire occurred in the other two buildings prioritizing the artifacts would have been significantly more difficult.

Invest in good quality storage materials.

There is a reason why archival grade storage boxes are so expensive and that is because they work. Convince your board or those making budget decisions that a good quality storage options are necessary; they can be the difference between your artifacts surviving a disaster or being lost.

In our case, much of the archival collection was spared significant smoke and water damage because of the Hollinger boxes that we used.

The fire at the Oshawa Museum was without a doubt the most challenging time of my career, however we were able to come out the other side stronger and better than before. Of course, there is no way to prepare for every potential disaster but situations such as the devastating loss in Brazil should act as a catalyst for change on the local as well as the federal level to ensure our nation’s heritage is safeguarded across the country.

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, November/December issue, 2018