I have always seen disasters as more of a theory than a reality, something you have to plan for, but never will experience. The statistics say that in average you will deal with one incident in your working career, I have already dealt with two important incidents in the last 3 years and Sheffield suffered an earthquake a couple of years ago. A week after I took up a maternity leave vacancy at Museums Sheffield the Sheffield Flood happened. I think that mentally you are never prepared for something like this but when it happens you’ll be glad you have your contingency plan ready for action. In all honesty our lengthy disaster plan plaid no roll on our response to the flood, at least not in a physical manner. We didn’t look at it once. What proved invaluable was the knowledge and experience of our staff, their contacts and their ability to manage the situation, the staff and resources. All this however would have not bee achieved without the support of the organisation at the highest level.
The evening of the flood we still didn’t know what had happened, we were busy attending to other buildings which were also having problems with water ingress through roofs and Kelham Island museum staff were too busy evacuating some 100 school children from the site to be able to warn us. This is a view of our store on the left and the car park which is underwater. This store was a low risk site, although so close to the river because the last flood in Sheffield happen in 1864 and wasn’t related to the river. Ironically, the vacation of this site and re-housing of the collections were within our short term plans.
This is the same view from the other side of the river this time with the more normal water levels. As you can see the wall was completely devastated, it was a good job the car park floor did not subside and the building was able to withstand the enormous force of the water if not our collections could have been washed away and probably never found again.
And this is how we found the collections. The water had in many cases made objects float when it raised and then dumped them all over the store. Thankfully most things were in either drawers, hanging or on shelves, so they remained reasonably in place. Otherwise, anything that was not attached to a surface moved around the store or was knocked down. You can see the thick layer of mud left by the water.
The first step was to clear the floor area in order to gain access to the store and get rid of the mud. We gathered some materials from our sites, like mops, although these weren’t very useful in these circumstances, buckets, water proof clothing, paper rolls, a wonderful squidgy type of mop which was really useful (something like a window cleaner but on the shape of a mop), plastic crates and boxes. We got some of the crates from the Central library which proves networking very useful.
Our priority was to evacuate the site as soon as possible and try to estimate the damage. The problem with this last point is that the real damage won’t show until sometimes years later. One could not anticipate how the contaminants in the water will affect the objects in the long run, or what will happen to the object that did not get submerge in the water but got affected by the high level of Relative humidity.
For us the initially the focus was on the evacuation of the objects submerged in the water which would require immediate action and the conservators’ expertise. The works on paper and paintings collections were the first to receive attention. This was a prioritisation exercise based on the curator’s knowledge of the collections and their nature. Some of the reasons were: The works on paper collection is also one of the most significant parts of the Social History collection with unique and irreplaceable objects and the one with the most clear financial value which is important for insurance claims. Other parts of the collection which were affected were potentially replaceable even if this is an undesirable outcome and not as delicate. On the other hand and although we don’t like to associate museum objects with monetary cost unfortunately when it comes to insurance monetary value and market availability play a very important part even more so if you don’t have a specialist insurer. The collection of works on paper and paintings, comprising over 1200 had been badly affected and we needed to attend to them as soon as possible to assess and minimize the damage. Professional conservators started to work with us almost straight away and we needed to be efficient with their time. If another flood was to occur it was highly unlikely that the level of the water will raise any further than it had done the first time and damage objects at a higher level from the ground. In my experience not two incident are the same and different decisions have to be made in each case and a different strategy worked out but this will also depend on the gravity of the disaster. We started a process of drying advised by the paper conservator, which meant separating and unpacking thousands of pieces of paper from the ephemera collection, photographs, watercolours and prints and other 3D objects.
It was vital for us to be able to react promptly and efficiently. Key points that help control and manage the situation where:Being able to pull staff from their daily tasks and allow them to help without any bureaucracy involved. For this you we’ll need the support of your organisation at the highest level. Make sure they are involved in your disaster planning and understand and agree with the process. Most importantly they’ll need to know their role in case of a disaster, what is expected of them and how can they help best. The fact that there was no interference from top management in our rescue operation facilitated a lot of the work. Having access to a business credit card which allowed for the immediate purchase of materials and external help. This meant that we by-passed the usual requisition procedures and were able to spend money straight away.Contacting conservators who where able to drop everything else and come to take action and guide us through the immediate rescuing process. Building up relationships with your suppliers, freelancers, conservators, etc and creating a strong relationship is priceless. Having access to dry, secure premises to allow us to empty the store immediately. This can also come down to building up relationships with neighboring organisations and feeling confident about approaching them when you need them. Access to transport and mobile work phones, which meant that the recovery operation could be based in situ rather than at a distance in an office. We have our own transport which meant that we could start to take objects to a safe store straight away and pick up materials or staff from different places without having to wait for deliveries or rely on public transport.
We were also very lucky because: The water raised and went down in a matter of hours which allowed us access to the building and the collections shortly after the flood. If the area would have been flooded for longer the collections would have been under water for longer and access to the building may have been impossible. The access roads were not permanently affected which allowed us to gain access to the store.We could maintain communicated with the outside world through work mobiles although computers or landlines were not available. The flood water was not contaminated by raw swage and the risks to health and safety were minor. This meant that we could start taking action straight away and frustration did not take over. No members of staff were personally affected by the flood so they could attend to the collections.We had arranged a specialist insurance for the collections, which meant they were more sympathetic than ordinary insurers and our claim was seen more favorably from a museum collection point of view.This was a storage building thus there was no business interruption for us and because this part of the collection/store had undergone little development there wasn’t too much emotional impact neither. It would have been a very different story if all these factors wouldn’t have work on our favor. Also we were lucky that the force of the river did not take the building down and washed all the collections away.
The experience for KI museum staff was completely different. The emotional impact on them was much greater because all the work and development they had been putting on their site and collections was ruined and all they had achieved over the years was destroyed and their business was brutally stopped. At the same time they had to work around Museums Sheffield staff and allow us to use their facilities. I still can’t imagine how they must have felt but I know I wouldn’t want to be in their position.
As I’ve mentioned staff from different departments came to the rescue. The only difficulty with this is that someone needs to co-ordinate the work and make sure the rescuing process doesn’t damage the objects further, at the end of the day many of the people involve don’t work with the collections and have not knowledge about their handling, condition, or characteristics. One could do a lot of harm with the best intention. In a situation like this clear instructions have to be given. Someone needs to be in charge coordinating the help, if this can’t be achieved you will find that you may have to decline help as harsh as this sounds. You have to keep your site safe, ensure things are handled properly and take into account confidential information and to whom it may be exposed.
We took our objects to the Kelham Island museum education room, which happened to be a large, empty, open space, which was generously made available to us. At this point we had two types of objects wet ones and dry ones, which were separated accordingly to avoid cross contamination. The nature of the collection meant that a wide diversity of materials were affected and with this came other difficulties like finding the expertise to follow the best procedure with each one of them. We received external offers of help, but their own bureaucracy meant that the response time would have been too slow and these did not come to fruition.
As I have mentioned earlier independent curators, who we employ regularly to work on the collections came to the rescue with their own rescue kits. They also help us contact suppliers and place orders of blotting paper and other materials we needed and without which we could have not carried out the work. Their input, expertise and experience was invaluable. They also put us in touch with other reliable specialists.
Once again the nature of the collections made it hard to prioritise the material and to value it for insurance purposes.
One thing that insurance companies will not understand is the intrinsic value of collections. Once again we were extremely fortunate to have insured our collections separately from our standard buildings and contents insurance and sourced a specialist insurance company, which was sympathetic to the value and meaning of museum collections. If this would have not been the case we would have probably lost everything because as you can see the market value of these objects is virtually none and you’ll find that commercial insurers will want to value your losses in relation to the market value of your collections. This is ok if all your objects have a tangible monetary value but what happens if not?
The book section suffered the most. The conservation of a single volume can be around £5,000. Most of our books were not key to the collections but more like support material and were common print. They also suffered very badly with rapidly spreading mould which presented a health and safety risk and massive distortions. We considered the treatment of some manuscripts but the funding for their treatment rapidly run out and difficult decisions had to be made. We started a program of rationalisation and prioritasion of the collections which continues to the day. Two years after the flood we are still identifying conservation priorities and disposals.
Often organisations such us ours depend on local councils for insurance. The council probably showing a natural lack of understanding of their non-financial assets will not arrange for specialist insurance to cover collections in order to cut costs. In this case insurance companies will insist on paying only up to the market value of objects which often can be much lower than the conservation of the object and on disposal of the original and replacement. For collections such as social history, natural history there is often no tangible or realisable market value in the collections and thus they are effectively not covered for conservation costs, this is equally relevant to archives and some type of library material.Even if a museum has collections insurance it will usually specify that items are ‘insured for conservation costs up to the market value of the object’, however this can be negotiated. These factors need to be taken into consideration when arranging insurance for your collections and ensuring the intrinsic value of objects and their meaning within museum/library collections is understood. Also be aware of your excess and ensure this is not greater than the value of your collections. Pay attention to the detail and be aware of what is and isn’t covered, what initially looks like may be saving you a bit of money may cost you greatly in the future. If disaster strikes there is often no option other than to dispose
Although we were allowed to make decisions and jump beaurocratic loops which helped greatly, we could have received more support from the top management in the organisation would have we worked with them on emergency planning issues and made their role clear. There are things you can’t think of when planning and will only surface with experience and you need to accept that. We could have done with having some portacabins as staff resting areas, loos and washing facilities for instance. Also a member of the staff took care of food and drinks were brought by us from home, if not we would have been stranded in this respect working in very harsh conditions.As I’ve mentioned earlier the emotional impact on us wasn’t significant but we never received any support from our personnel department. Once again because at the time of planning they were not included and responsibilities were not given to them. Better planning would have ensured a designated person could have taken care of liaising with other organisations, making phone calls, sending e-mails, searching for information on the web, etc. this could have made the rescue easier for the people on the ground who were trying to take care of ten things at a time.Keep allocated emergency recovery resource when possible instead of having to either look for them in each part of your organisation or purchase them in the last minute, in these situations shops may run out of supplies very quickly and you may need them asap. Ideally have an emergency recovery fund.
Objects had to be disposed of due to total destruction and/or health and safety risks. Mould started to develop very rapidly, especially on books, paper material and textiles.We still don’t know if due to the contaminants on the water objects are going to show damage in the futureThe collection will never be the same for better or worseWe loss precious storage space which for museums is a luxury even if unsuitable and had to reorganise other stores to house yet another collectionThe fact that we didn’t once look at our disaster plan is indicative that in its current format it is not useful to the people on the ground. This has prompted a site specific planning action with simple steps on what to do, who to contact, who can make decisions regarding what areas, etc. all the practical information one could need in case of an incident happening.
In order to achieve positive outcomes we couldn’t isolate the flooded objects from the non-flooded ones so our attention has been focused on the collection as a whole. We needed to understand the place of each part within the overall collection, its current and future use and its meaning. The achievement of this is a lengthy process, there are no quick fixes. We continue with the documentation and consolidation of information, the rationalisation and conservation process and the realisation of the potential of the collection. There is still work to be done 2 years later. Previously the collection was divided between several different storage spacesThe re-housing of the collection and its documentation has greatly improved access to the collectionWe have undergone the review and rationalisation of all the flooded worksWe have photographed and entered over 4000 objects in our database with detail documentation and achieved a lot in means of identification and collation of documentation with objectsThe conservation of over 300 objects and a conservation programme for the futureWe achieved local business support for the conservation of some objects and are currently working on raising interest with the friends of the museum group and other organisationsThorough all the research and documentation work done we have help rediscover this collection and realised its value and links to other collections increasing its use and raising its profile within the organisation and curatorial teamsThrough the insurance claim a post was created to work exclusively with the collection and lead its recoveryClose: We were very lucky in so many ways if our collections would have been perfectly documented and stored and in perfect condition this wouldn’t have been a disaster it would have been a catastrophe. Difficult decisions had to be made throughout the process and who knows how long we’ll have to be dealing with the remnants of the flood. I know of other organisations which have suffered much worse than we have and will take much longer to recover if they ever do completely. The reality is that the weather has become more severe in recent years and the future is uncertain. The economic crisis is not helping either and funding cuts are having an impact in all aspects of public organisations and funds are having to be redirected in many cases or staff are lost. Is better to prepare as well as possible than regret when it happens.
Insurance <br />Nature of your insurance<br />Intrinsic value of collections<br />Excess<br />Coverage <br />
Lessons Learned<br />Operational support from management <br />Support from Personnel for staff<br />Having a clear contact to provide office support<br />Allocated resources <br />
The impact of the flood<br />Immediate loss of objects<br />Long term degradation of objects<br />Impact on integrity of collection <br />Reorganisation and loss of storage space<br />Review of current disaster plan<br />
Positive outcomes<br />The re-housing of collection <br />Improvement of physical and intellectual access<br />Rationalisation and review <br />Full inventory of the collection<br />Documentation and photography<br />Conservation work <br />Raising support for the conservation of objects<br />Raising the profile of the collection<br />Dedicated staff to work with the collection<br />