Water and Works on Paper

On May 5th, I joined 120 other museum/conservation professionals in participating in a live webinar presented by the American Association of Museums. This online seminar focused on how to respond to water emergencies in a museum setting, and, more specifically, how to salvage books, photographs, documents, and other works on paper. The advertisement for this seminar caught my eye because, while working at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco just last year, the Museum Services division was revising their emergency response manual. The webinar provided the perfect opportunity to brush up on emergency response procedures (did you know you only react at 20% capacity during an emergency?!), and I was pleased to see that the staff at the Asian had also logged on for the informative presentations.

First, let me say that the webinar system ran surprisingly smoothly, with the presentation and closed captions on the right and presenter’s photo, attendee list and chat box on the left. Not once did my system freeze, and the questions and poll answers all appeared in real time; maybe I’ve been scarred from years of sluggish dial-up, but the webinar really was a good substitute for a live seminar, especially since I could relax on the couch while watching it :).



On to the content: Julie Page of the Western States & Territories Preservation Assistance Service began by giving an overview of possible water problems and how to respond. That segued very nicely into the presentation by Theresa Voellinger of the National Park Service. She explained the structure of the Incident Command System (ICS) originally used by the California Department of Forestry and Fire to contain wildfires in the 1970s; within that framework, Theresa also gave specific steps to take when dealing with these problems affecting paper objects: mold, tidelines, blocking, bleeding and warping. Ellen Carrleeof the Alaska State Museums next told the story of a water leak at a site of the Alaska State Libraries in 2005. Most helpful was the month long timeline she gave for the entire recovery process and a list of actions that would have been useful at the time. California Historical Society‘s Mary Morganti also listed “what we learned” and “what worked” in her description of a water leak at her site in San Francisco in 2008. She concluded by confiding in the attendees an estimate of how much the entire event cost to the Society; all I can say is YIKES!

What I took away from the presentations was a better understanding of the exact steps to take in order to salvage works on paper. It was also clear how important it is to communicate with the people involved in the response and to keep very detailed and organized records of each step taken. Ultimately, safety is first, which is why we must be prepared for an emergency so that we are able to focus when the time comes.

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