When is a Disaster Not a Disaster?

By Wendy Richardson, MA student, Collections Care and Conservation Management

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A disaster in a museum or historic house can range in scale from the theft or damage of an individual object to the wholesale destruction of a collection or property by fire or flood. As a Collections Care Assistant for English Heritage, part of my job is to do anything reasonably practicable to try and prevent such an event from occurring and to help mitigate its effects should the worst happen.

Check, Check, and Check Again

Figure 1: A regular check uncovered a leak in the Archive Room at the object store at Dover Castle. Paper records could be dried quickly, preventing mould and a far worse disaster. Photograph by Wendy Richardson, courtesy of English Heritage.

In my mind, one of the most important tools in our arsenal for combatting disaster is also one of the most easily overlooked. It is the simple act of checking our collections and our buildings. Whilst this can in no way prevent natural disasters, I know from personal experience that it can absolutely stop or minimise other types of disaster, such as fire, flood, theft or mould.

Performing regular checks may seem like such a simple and quick task that you may ask why it can be overlooked, but if you consider that at Dover Castle alone we care for over 100,000 objects, both on display and in store in at least twenty buildings including three levels of tunnels, you might begin to understand the scale of this task. It cannot be done by one person alone; it requires a large team who are familiar with the buildings and collections and know how and what to check.

We perform several levels of checks, from daily security surveys by Stewarding Staff, to monthly object surveys by Collections Care Staff, to quarterly buildings checks by Maintenance Staff and annual inventory checks by Curatorial Staff. Each of these checks has the potential to highlight any numbers of problems, not just those specific to its original purpose.

It is very important to make sure that when any check is done, irrespective to whether it is a basic walkthrough or an in-depth object study, it is recorded in a way that is clear and accessible to all staff. Such records can help staff to recognize whether a problem is getting worse, whether anyone else has noticed it or indicate a timescale in which it might have occurred. For example, if yesterday's record noted that all the doors were secure at 6pm, yet this morning at 8am one of them is open, we can say with certainty that a breach of security occurred overnight, focusing any investigation immediately and saving vital time in finding the culprit.

I always recommend that anyone performing any level of checks to a building or collection uses all of their senses (well maybe not taste, I wouldn't recommend licking any of our collections) and takes heed of anything that seems unusual or out of the ordinary. It may take a bit of courage to report a funny smell or an odd noise but this is exactly the type of information that can be the earliest hint of a disaster.

We all know the places where we live and work and any change in the way they smell sound look or feel must have a reason. That odd smell could be a new piece of machinery that has been installed; it could also be a motor burning out and the very early warning of a fire.

Equip Yourself for Disaster

Figure 2: A quick response to a water leak stopped water spreading to areas holding collections in the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle. Photograph by Wendy Richardson, courtesy of English Heritage.

Should any type of disaster occur, the speed and efficiency with which you can respond will have a huge impact on the scale of said disaster. For example, if a leak is discovered and not reported, it could cause major damage; equally, if it is reported and there is no knowledge or equipment nearby to allow a timely response, a whole collection could be damaged.

At English Heritage, staff are trained in disaster response and any property that holds a collection will have one or more disaster stores, containing anything and everything that we have determined may be of use should disaster occur at that site. This equipment can range from torches and tarpaulins to fans and packing materials.

We discovered water pouring through the ceiling of one of our sites on one of our regular checks. It was essential to our speed of response to have a supply of buckets, tarpaulins and a wet/dry vacuum near to hand to divert the water way from our collections until we could discover the cause of the leak. If we had to go out and purchase such items the water would have worked its way through the building and most certainly affected our collection before we could respond.

This quick response meant that we were dealing with a leak and not a waterlogged collection which, in this case, would also have been likely to lead to a mould outbreak; thus being prepared turned a potential disaster into a manageable problem.

Plan for Disaster

Figure 3: Emergency Response and Salvage Plans created by English Heritage. Photograph by Wendy Richardson, courtesy of English Heritage.

It is impossible to plan for every type of possible disaster, but any planning is better than none and effective planning can be adapted to any situation.

For example, who could have foreseen an earthquake in Kent in 2007? There was therefore no plan about how to deal with the aftereffects of this at Dover Castle. There were, however, plans for dealing with a power cut, site evacuation and suspected structural damage, all of which were entirely relevant in this situation. These plans allowed us to keep the staff, public and collections safe until the power was restored and surveys had been carried out to determine the safety of the structures on site.

For us, one of the most important parts of having an effective plan is testing it. At English Heritage, we work closely with the fire brigade to exercise our plans. This is an excellent way to train all members of staff, from stewards and gardeners to volunteers, in how to respond to a disaster and what to expect should the worst happen. It also allows us to check whether there is something we have missed in our planning or that could be made more efficient in a controlled manner that can be fed back into the plan.

In this way should a large-scale disaster occur, all members of staff are familiar with the contents of the plan, know how to respond and what might be asked of them. Having an effective plan means in the event of a disaster the decision-making process has already been agreed, saving time, money and energy in what can be a very stressful situation.

So when is a disaster not a disaster?

When it has been prevented from occurring in the first place.

When its effects have been minimised and dealt with quickly.

When a response has been planned and implemented in such a way that prevent any further damage.

It takes a lot of time and work to plan for a disaster that we hope will never happen. That the very act of planning itself can help us to prevent disasters occurring in the first place as well as help us mitigate their effects when they do happen, in my experience, makes the hard work more than worthwhile.

"It is an unfortunate fact of life that emergencies do happen. However, our awareness, preparedness, readiness and response to those emergencies is very much in our own hands."

Caroline Nokes MP. Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency. (Cabinet Office, 2017)