Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.
by Shelly Sjøvold and Helen Alten
Are you ready for the unthinkable? What if your museum had a fire? Staff at the Siouxland Heritage Museums were trained and had a plan for quick response when the unthinkable occurred.
Just after midnight on Saturday, Aug. 23, 1997, a coffee pot caught fire in administrative offices on the second floor of the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, S. D.
The fire burned itself out and did not set off the museum's sprinklers.
The small fire produced large quantities of smoke and soot, which billowed through administrative offices, storage areas and exhibits. Once the fire department determined the building was safe, staff contacted their governing authorities, hired a cleaning company that specializes in fire recoveries, and began preparing for an event that evening. The museum's insurance company was contacted on the Monday after the fire.
Because the Curator of Collections noticed soot everywhere, he contacted two conservators and arranged for site visits to assess the damage.
Within days, the cleaning service had removed most of the soot and smoke from offices and hallways and builders had begun fixing wiring and damaged walls.
The first conservator, an objects specialist with extensive disaster response experience arrived four days after the fire. She examined the extent of damage to artifacts on display and in storage. A paintings conservator arrived several days later to assess the museum's murals.
To the untrained eye, damage to the collection appeared minimal. Close examination by the conservators showed that the museum's air handling system circulated smoke far more than originally thought.
A fine, barely detectable film was found on glass and surfaces in the archive storage room. The collections in this room were in boxes or well-sealed cabinets.
Significant smoke damage occurred in the storage room directly above the burned office. Despite plastic sheeting draped over storage shelves, the artifacts were covered in soot. The plastic sheeting, artifacts, foam shelf padding, cardboard storage boxes, walls, floor and molding were covered with fine soot. Black cobwebs, typical of a plastics fire, hung from corners and shelving units. Soot covered a diverse collection of historic artifacts ranging in size from matchbook covers and pens to pianos and console radios. Large items rested on the floor; smaller items were on foam-lined metal shelves. Because of the variety of material affected by the fire, the treatment plan needed to take into account each class of artifact and the optimum cleaning solution that would remove soot without harm. In some cases, all of the soot might not be removable.
Although using a conservator to clean the collection would have been the best and safest approach, doing so would have been expensive. The Siouxland Heritage Museums and their insurance company, working with the objects conservator, weighed cost and outcome in deciding on an approach.
The most efficient and cost-effective clean-up, with minimal impact on an already overworked staff, was to hire a technician to work with the objects conservator during the 12 months of recovery. The goal was to have someone focus solely on soot removal, cleaning the storage area, and rehousing the cleaned collection without other distractions. This approach also maintained the conservation standards required for a museum.
During her first week of work, Ms. Sjøvold was trained in documentation standards including individual object condition assessments, pre- and post-treatment photography, and final treatment reports. Artifacts were sorted into cleaning categories and she was trained in the general cleaning techniques for each category. These treatment methods included micro-vacuuming techniques, swab making and solvent usage, and dry methods using eraser crumbs and a sticky substance called Groomstick. Ms. Sjøvold was taught how to identify problem objects and set them aside for the conservator to treat. Training included solvent safety measures, such as the use of a respirator and good ventilation in the work area.
Ms. Sjøvold kept a daily log that recorded the number of objects cleaned, noted specific problems or changes, and recorded impressions of the recovery. This created a large body of information on the recovery as well as ensuring a record of every artifact in the storage room. The museum also ended up with an accurate inventory of the storage area and a location record of its contents.
The objects conservator, Helen Alten, visited the museum six times. After treating priority artifacts and training the technician, her visits followed the same pattern. Each time, she reviewed the technician's condition reports, photographs and treatments. Then she treated problem objects set aside for her.
During each visit, Ms. Alten also provided more training to Ms. Sjøvold on new cleaning techniques and products. For example, the use of a polyvinyl alcohol sponge was introduced on her fourth visit. This sponge holds minimal moisture after squeezing. A highly successful cleaning technique, the use of solvents largely was eliminated. Many more items could be cleaned with distilled water. This saved money and provided a safer alternative treatment for Ms. Sjøvold who, by this time, was pregnant.
Between visits, digital camera images of problem artifacts were sent to the conservator via e-mail. Then treatment was discussed either during a phone consultation or via e-mail. This provided an efficient and timely method for dealing with problems that occurred when the conservator could not be on site.
Second, the overall condition of the stored collections was improved. All artifacts, as well as the room and storage furniture, were thoroughly cleaned. An improved covering was installed on the metal shelves. Large items were lifted off of the floor onto rolling pallets.
The collection records were improved. Every artifact in the room has a dated condition assessment and location record. Either a photograph or a digital image was taken of each item. About 800 artifacts were added to the museum's computer inventory. The daily log created a mass of information regarding the artifacts in the room, recovery techniques, and problems encountered throughout the year.
Thirdly, the museum installed smoke detectors throughout the building, improving response capabilities. Finally the fire reinforced staff's belief in a need for continued contact with conservators.
Special thanks to the staff at the Siouxland Heritage Museums for their support during the fire recovery as well as with this article.
Shelly Sjøvold was Collection Assistant at the Old Courthouse Museum before the birth of her second child. She works as an occasional conservation technician and stays occupied as a full-time mother to two pre-schoolers.
Helen Alten has written and lectured on preventive care techniques since 1986. She is an objects conservator specializing in treatments for historical, archaeological and ethnographic materials. She has responded to floods and fires at six museums in the Upper Midwest in the past three years.