By Jeffrey Levin

In a decision of significance to U.S. museums, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently revised its policy regarding art objects damaged in federally declared disasters, announcing that the conservation of these art works will now be eligible for funding.

The policy change was triggered by a request from San Francisco's Mexican Museum when its collection sustained damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. FEMA initially declined to reimburse the museum for the cost of repairing and restoring damaged pieces. This ruling was based on existing policy which, in making eligibility determinations, distinguished between building contents (i.e., furnishings) and objects of art. The repair of art objects did not fall within the eligibility guidelines.

However, in reviewing the Mexican Museum's appeal of the judgment, FEMA concluded that extending federal disaster assistance for conserving art was indeed appropriate. While FEMA funds will not be provided to replace objects that have been "completely destroyed," it will offer assistance "for the purpose of 'conservation' of damaged pieces. Basically, we agreed to allow for payment of the restoration of these objects, realizing that they could not be replaced," explains Richard W. Krimm, Deputy Associate Director for State and Local Programs at FEMA.

In recent years, the conservation community, including the GCI, the National Park Service, the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, and the American Institute for Conservation have explored with FEMA the financial and technical needs of museums in the aftermath of disasters. According to Krimm, the policy shift reflects the continuing interest of FEMA's leadership in protecting cultural property.

"We're trying to do what we can to both protect and restore historical buildings and protect artifacts," says Krimm, who served on the GCI Disaster Planning Steering Committee in the mid-1980s. "We're working with others trying to get museums and historical buildings to at least be aware of their hazards and of some of the things they can do to minimize damage. That's a very major effort."

Emergency Planning in Museums

Fire, flooding, earthquakes, and civil disturbances are among the items in the catalogue of catastrophes that potentially can strike museums and other collecting institutions. Because preparing for emergencies—and responding effectively when they occur—is a critical component of collections care, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the GCI offered their first joint workshop on emergency planning for museums, conducted in January of this year.

The directors of eight California museums gathered at the GCI in Marina del Rey and at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu to hear first-hand accounts of how institutions in Chicago, Louisiana, and San Francisco coped during real-life disasters, and to learn about the Getty's comprehensive emergency plans and drills. The principal aim of the workshop was to emphasize the role that top museum management plays in making preparedness a priority. For that reason, participants were limited to museum directors and one or two members of their senior staff whose input would be essential to a museum's emergency plan.

As Miguel Angel Corzo, Director of the GCI, explained to the participants during the opening session, "It is the museum director who must make emergency preparedness a priority within the museum in the first place; it is not a decision that can be delegated." The director, Corzo said, is the only one who can make emergency planning an integral part of preventive conservation and museum management. "Although you may or may not be directly responsible for drawing up the plans yourself, it will be up to you as the director—and solely up to you—to get the ball rolling. It will be up to you to determine the philosophy and approach that your museum will take in preparing for and possibly responding to an emergency, taking into account the particular characteristics of your institution. Without your interest and your involvement, it simply won't happen."

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In addressing the group, John Walsh, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, observed that although the reasons for preparedness were self-evident, resistance to emergency plans in museums—including drills, practice sessions, and staff training—remained. "I think it's that familiar combination of avoidance and denial," he said. "After all, emergency planning is just one more big job, a job, moreover, that costs time and money without any visible outcome—at least we hope not." Nevertheless, Walsh said that emergency planning was "a matter of common sense and responsibility."

It can also, he pointed out, be a positive experience in unexpected ways. "At the Getty we find that the process of planning for disasters has some surprising side benefits. The working groups who develop the plan together learn a lot about each other's work and a lot about each other generally. You get real solidarity out of the process." In addition, he said, the museum staff is reassured by the planning process. "There's the important subliminal message for the staff that the museum is making a conscientious effort to care for its visitors, its collections—and them."

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The workshop included a tour of the J. Paul Getty Museum to view emergency preparations, including measures developed to protect every object in its collections, whether on display or in storage, from earthquake damage. The Museum developed its first emergency plan in 1986. A year later, it joined with the GCI and the University of Southern California in a two-year research project to evaluate the effectiveness of its seismic damage mitigation measures. The results of that study, available from the GCI Scientific Program, include general guidelines for evaluating the seismic vulnerability of objects.

In addition, the GCI, along with the National Academy of Sciences and the Earthquake Engineers Research Institute, has participated in selected emergency response missions in the wake of such disasters as Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake. It has also assisted in missions organized to cope with disasters at individual institutions, including the flood in the Carillo Gil Museum in 1987, and the 1988 fires at the Louisiana State Museum and the Library of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy of Sciences)