For those of you that live on the east coast, you know the extent of damage that Hurricane Sandy left in her path. I was fortunate to be in Philadelphia during the storm and was barely affected by the wind and rain, but many cities along the coast have experienced power outages and some extreme flooding…and are still dealing with the aftermath. One area hit hard was lower Manhattan, and within it, the Chelsea art galleries. There was no way for these galleries to prepare for the 6-20′ of water that entered on the first floor, causing damage to even the framed artwork on the walls. Luckily, many gallery owners have responded to the situation by calling in conservators, and the conservation community has come together to provide the best support that we can.
The weekend following the hurricane, I volunteered at a private conservation studio in New Jersey to recover multiple bins of water-damaged photographs coming from Chelsea art galleries. It is a good idea to move artwork from the site, where possible, to a location that has power, clean running water, and plenty of space. Even with a fairly large studio, space is a premium for spreading out wet objects in need of air drying. I helped to unframe photographs before they dried and began sticking to the glazing. They were laid out on blotters in drying stacks created with cardboard and styrofoam cups; this allowed us to create extra space moving upward when table space ran out. Most of the objects were safely removed from the frames and are now stable, but depending on the situation (broken glass, debris, etc.) some items could not be salvaged. The experience of working in an actual disaster recovery was much different than the mock disasters created in class, and it was a great educational opportunity for me…unfortunately at the price of so much destruction.
On the same day that I was volunteering in New Jersey, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), along with the AIC-Collections Emergency Response Team (CERT), the New York Regional Association for Conservation (NYRAC), and Heritage Preservation’s Alliance for Response-New York (AfR-NY) organized a consortium on conserving works of art damaged by flooding. The video of the presentations and Q&A session is available now on the MoMA website, as is a document with instructions on immediate response for collections. You’ll find that both of these sources stress the importance of personal health and safety, especially where mold is almost guaranteed to be growing. I also learned that if mold is dormant now because of the cold weather and low relative humidity, it is still possible for the problem to return next summer when the temperature and humidity rise. Please be sure to document all stages of the disaster for insurance purposes because even future condition problems with the collection can be associated with this event.
As efforts still continue to recover objects in NYC, I imagine that locals are in need of a rest, so if you’re available to volunteer please check the Emerging Professionals in Conservation (EPiC) Facebook page for up-to-date postings, or fill out this Volunteer Recruitment Survey supplied by NYRAC. The sooner we can stabilize all damaged objects, the better chance they have of being salvaged.
My heart goes out to anyone that has been dealing with power outages and other damage to your home. If you have questions about how to salvage artwork, family photographs, or any other objects in your home, please call AIC’s 24-hour assistance line at (202)661-8068.