Are museums safe from natural disasters?

Wildfires in Los Angeles. Hurricanes and flooding in Houston. Earthquakes in Mexico City. With the frequency of natural disasters seemingly on the rise, planning for them is increasingly important as well. So where does that leave museums, whose mission, in part, is to protect the world’s great treasures?

Like other institutions, museums test their emergency plans and have close relationships with local emergency personnel. They generally know exactly how long it would take police and fire to arrive at the building, and the emergency personnel are often briefed on museums’ specific needs and concerns.

But many museums are already specially designed to face the natural disasters endemic to their location. The Whitney Museum of American Art is one of the most flood-resilient structures in New York, with a 15,500-pound flood door devised by the same engineers who design watertight latches on the U.S. Navy’s destroyers. The Getty Center in Los Angeles has a million-gallon water tank and an air filtration system that forces air (and smoke) out of the galleries while maintaining the temperature and humidity levels necessary to protect the artwork.

Here at Mia, the greatest natural disaster threat is tornados. Though rare, tornados in the urban area are not unheard of. In August 2009, a tornado damaged the Electric Fetus music store a mere .4 miles from the museum. In May 2011, the north side of Minneapolis was hit by multiple tornados that did extensive damage and knocked out power to more than 22,000 homes. In preparation for a disaster like this, Mia has a back-up generator for lights and climate control, as well as fortified tempered glass to protect from flying debris.

Mia also has an additional tool at our disposal: the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC), housed in the museum building. One of the conservators we consult with regularly is Nicole Grabow, MACC’s Senior Objects Conservator and Preservation Conservator, who says that one of the most important preventative conservation measures that museums and other collecting institutions can take is to make sure their staff is prepared for anything. “Many natural disasters involve excessive water—either in the form of floods, leaks, or fire suppression—so training staff on how to recover and handle different art materials that have been exposed to water is important.” MACC also provides training workshops and 24-hour disaster response assistance by their conservators. And since they’re right here in the building, they’re ready to help should the need arise.

In addition to MACC, major Minneapolis institutions like Mia have assistance agreements to help each other with disaster recovery. These verbal agreements make it possible for an institution needing assistance to reach out to neighboring institutions for help in the form of qualified staff, space, or other resources.

No disaster plan is perfect and not every institution can plan for every disaster. But museums are doing their best to protect and preserve the precious cultural property in their collections for many generations to come.

Top image: Julius Holm’s Tornado Over St. Paul from 1893, on view at Mia in gallery G303.