In 2008, floodwater inundated the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City. Employees evacuated most of the 12,400 items in the collection, and they remained without a permanent home until the opening in August 2022 of the Stanley Museum of Art.
The process of regeneration was a long road of fundraising, planning, and revisioning the purpose of the institution, shifting from a display space to an “academic teaching museum for the 21st century,” as described by gallery director Lauren Lessing.
Museums are no stranger to disaster planning. But increasingly, the number and frequency of calamitous events are overwhelming the institutions which serve as custodians of our cultural heritage.
In Italy, the recent devastating floods in Emilia-Romagna, displaced a multitude of residents in its wake. In the city of Ravenna, those whose homes had been ravaged by the floodwaters were faced with the grim reality of homelessness. However, a ray of hope emerged from an unexpected source – the Classis archaeological museum, situated nearby, opened its doors to extend a helping hand. This act of generosity provided not only shelter but also a sense of community to the stricken individuals, underscoring the resilience and unity that can emerge in the face of adversity.
Many institutional collections suffered damage from the floods, and the Italian government announced a €1 increase in museum entry fees to assist the recovery of the region’s cultural heritage.
Italians will also remember 4 November 1966, when the Arno burst its banks in Florence, devastating the city’s cultural treasures. That historic flood was considered an anomaly, but now – with climate disruption – we must consider the possibility of a repeat in the not so distant future. One shudders at the very thought.
What is not understood by the public, however, is the level of difficulty required to protect sculptural masterpieces. Sculptures present a unique problem, because they are so hard to transport and require expert handling to avoid damage.
In a polycrisis world – with increasing threats of flooding, hail, fire, hurricanes, vandalism, and social unrest – we see a sharp increase in risk. The threat of damage and loss grows as the climate crisis engulfs us all. Preserving cultural legacy sculptures from the threats of fire and floods requires careful planning, preventive measures, and swift response in case of emergencies. Here are some ways to help protect these valuable artworks:
Fire Prevention and Protection:
- Install fire detection and suppression systems: Implement advanced fire detection systems that can quickly identify the presence of smoke or fire and trigger suppression mechanisms such as sprinklers or fire-resistant foam.
- Fire-resistant coatings: Apply fire-resistant coatings to sculptures to minimize the risk of ignition and damage from flames.
- Adequate spacing: Keep sculptures away from potential ignition sources like electrical panels, heaters, or flammable materials.
- Fireproof storage: Store sculptures in fire-resistant storage units or vaults equipped with fire suppression systems.
- Regular maintenance: Ensure sculptures are well-maintained, as accumulated dust and debris can increase the risk of fire.
Flood Prevention and Protection:
- Elevated storage: Store sculptures on elevated platforms or shelves to prevent direct contact with floodwaters.
- Flood barriers and sandbags: Install flood barriers or use sandbags around exhibition spaces or storage areas to redirect floodwaters.
- Waterproof storage: Use waterproof containers or wrapping materials to protect sculptures from water damage.
- Climate control: Maintain temperature and humidity control in storage spaces to prevent moisture-related issues that could lead to mold and decay.
- Emergency response plan: Develop a detailed plan for evacuating sculptures in the event of a flood, including clear roles and responsibilities for staff.
- Create digital records: Photograph and document sculptures comprehensively, including their dimensions, materials, and historical context. Store this information securely off-site.
- 3D scanning: Use 3D scanning technology to create detailed digitalclones of sculptures. These can serve as backups in case the originals are damaged. Our ARTvault functions as a vehicle to digitize our cultural legacy.
- Artcloning: The process of producing an officially-licensed replica which preserves the form, integrity, and cultural value of an original sculptural masterpiece.
- Disaster response training: Train staff in emergency response procedures, including how to evacuate sculptures quickly and safely.
- Evacuation plan: Develop a detailed evacuation plan that outlines steps for removing sculptures from danger zones efficiently.
- Communication: Maintain updated contact lists for emergency responders, conservation experts, and relevant authorities.
Collaboration and Support:
- Collaborate with experts: Work with conservation specialists who have experience in preserving art and cultural artifacts to develop tailored preservation strategies.
- Engage with local authorities: Build relationships with local fire departments, emergency services, and disaster management agencies to ensure a coordinated response.
- Obtain new and revised comprehensive insurance coverage: Ensure that sculptures are adequately insured against fire, flood, and other potential risks.
- Where insurance is not available or prohibitively expensive, objects should be moved to better terrain.
Remember that prevention is key, and a combination of these measures, tailored to the specific needs of each sculpture and its environment, will provide the best protection against the threats of fire and floods. We believe collections, both public and private, should review their preservation strategies in light of our polycrisis world.
Barbara Dal Corso works at the intersection of art and technology. She is the co-founder of ARTficial, the maker of the world’s first officially-licensed artclones.