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Museums take proactive steps to protect irreplaceable art

As Mississippi continues to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina, one painful lesson learned was that it is impossible to replace an original. Katrina devastated museums and their collections on the Coast, and damaged others well away from the Gulf such as the Old Capitol in Jackson.

To help protect their art from future storms and emergencies, the MMA and the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Delta State University Archive and Museum in Cleveland, Oren Dunn City Museum in Tupelo and Tishomingo County Archive and Museum in Iuka, are participating in Heritage Preservation’s pilot Risk Evaluation and Planning Program. There is an urgency in the effort, and that anxiousness was only magnified recently as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast.

Too much at risk

Heritage Preservation is a non-profit organization that is an advocate for the proper care of all cultural heritage. In 2005, it conducted a survey of conditions of collections at museums and libraries nationwide, revealing that 80% of collecting institutions had no emergency plan that includes collections or trained staff to carry out such a plan.

Heritage Preservation subsequently developed the Risk Evaluation and Planning Program. The program is supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency. Thus, there is no cost to the program’s participants.

The Risk Evaluation and Planning Program takes a unique approach. It supports an onsite visit by professionals in preservation as well as local emergency response, who evaluate risks, suggest ways to mitigate hazards and provide guidance to institution staff in developing an emergency plan. Heritage Preservation’s position is that before disasters strike, it is important to establish relationships with firefighters and other responders to the institution in crisis.

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art received minimal damage to its roof and minor leaks during Hurricane Katrina. However, the museum was without electrical power for three days.

Lauren Rogers onsite visit is slated for October 21-22. And, the museum’s registrar, Tommie Rodgers, has been invited to attend a national museums conference next May in Philadelphia, Pa, to discuss the process and program.

George Bassi, director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, said, “The notice of the program seemed to be perfectly timed to the issues we were addressing over the last three years. Since Katrina, we attended two statewide library and museum meetings addressing preparedness issues. We created a new disaster plan using the online program called dPlan (for libraries and museums) and had two annual tours for our local fire and police departments. (Tommie Rodgers) has also written newspaper articles focused on preparedness at least annually since Katrina.”

Storm proofing

Bassi added, “The museum’s board had meetings after Katrina to plan building upgrades such as a new security, a new smoke/heat detection system and the installation of a backup generator to operate all security and camera systems during a loss of power.”

MMA has also done some storm proofing. In the aftermath of Katrina, MMA became a place of refuge for artifacts salvaged from several museums and cultural centers. including Beauvoir in Biloxi, William Carey University on the Coast in Gulfport, Neal Auction Company in New Orleans as well as some private collections.

That left a profound impression on the MMA staff. Thus, in 2006 when MMA was planning the renovations of the former Mississippi Arts Pavilion, now its new home, emergency preparedness was a keen focus.

“Though our museum was spared any damage (from Katrina), so many of our sister institutions were not,” said Betsy Bradley, director of the MMA. “As part of a thoughtful and thorough study for the design of new facility, MMA staff and trustees felt it was of utmost importance that we incorporate disaster preparedness plans for the protection of our new facility and, more important, the art that we house.”

The MMA applying for participation in the Risk Evaluation and Planning Program was yet another measure the museum is taking to ensure it is ready for Mother Nature’s worst.

Gathering storm

On August 28, Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency as Hurricane Gustav moved toward the Gulf of Mexico. Museums, even those far away from the Coast, were in overdrive making emergency preparations.

Bassi said, “The final tasks for the generator hookup is being done, and we have a staff meeting plan in place to move a specific group of paintings from the galleries prior to the storm. We will move outdoor sculpture or tie down certain pieces and remove loose debris from the grounds. Staff members will backup and store computer information. An updated staff contact list with physical addresses has been distributed. We are also serving as a storage location for museum art collections along the Gulf Coast.”

Even up in Tupelo, Mathis was keeping tabs on Gustav. She said her main concern at Oren Dunn would by downed tree limbs and loss of electricity, and the museum was preparing for this possibility.

Mathis added that she was drawn to the Risk Evaluation and Planning Program because it included involvement by emergency responders. She said Oren Dunn has long reached out to the community at large, including the Tupelo Fire Department. Thus, the museum has formed a close relationship with its local firefighters.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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