JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. to )




During the two-week response phase following the fire at the RSM, decisions were made and priorities established that would inexorably guide the fire recovery. A chronological review of this response period reveals the complexities and pressures involved in a postdisaster situation and the surprising speed at which decisions are made (Pingert 1991).

The fire at the RSM took place on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning of day 1 after the fire, no one had the presence of mind to secure the building properly, and staff, the media, and some curious members of the public could be seen wandering through the building. Later that day, the municipal fire marshal ordered the building sealed for investigations. In addition to the fire marshals, a contingent of investigators arrived at the disaster scene: the city police fire investigators, the municipal fire investigators, a representative from the provincial fire commissioner, a special investigator from the fire insurance underwriters, and the landlord's insurance adjuster.

On the weekend (days 1 and 2 following the fire), conservators planned a salvage and cleaning strategy, beginning a supply list and searching files for any information on removal of soot during a fire recovery. The conservators took no other active steps during the first two days following the fire and largely guessed at the salvage and cleaning procedures that might be used to clean the collection. They found that articles on salvage and recovery in the conservation literature focused almost entirely on water damage, and there was scant information available on disaster response following fires.

On day 3, the director of the museum held an off-site staff meeting to report on the events of the weekend. During the meeting, staff members learned two important things. First, the museum's building, furnishings, and immobile contents were not owned by the museum but were leased from a government property management corporation that acted as landlords and building managers. Second, although the building and furnishings were insured through the property management corporation, the museum collection and other museum materials (e.g., education, research, administrative) were self-insured by the government. This arrangement meant that the museum was in charge of the funding and organization of its own recovery.

Later that day, the museum management met to establish a museum cleanup committee, which would be responsible for making decisions to guide the recovery. The senior conservator, who was appointed head of this committee, was assigned the task of coordinating recovery activities and acting in liaison with the building recovery process. Administrative staff members were relocated to the Museum Annex and to another government building. Management personnel were informed that the government had allotted a small fund to start salvage and recovery operations. A request for additional funds and staff was forwarded to the government department in charge, and the government responded with a promise that the provision of these resources would be “fast-tracked.”

After the staff meeting on day 3, the museum cleanup committee met with the landlord (the government property management corporation). The landlord had already appointed a higher-level member of its staff as its own project manager, who had met with its legal, security, and operations advisers. The landlord's representatives had spent day 2 in meetings with its insurance adjuster (the adjuster represented six insurance underwriters that held the landlord's insurance) and a construction manager (chosen by the insurance adjuster) to draw up a plan of action. This building recovery group laid out a vision of the recovery: the recovery of the building and furnishings would be supervised on-site by the construction manager, who would work directly under the landlord's project manager and the insurance adjuster; the salvage and cleaning of all museum materials would be the responsibility of the museum cleanup committee. This arrangement set the stage for two interdependent but sometimes conflicting recovery paths—that of the building, its furnishings, and its immobile contents, and that of the museum collection and noncollection materials. It was obvious from this meeting that the property manager, the insurance adjuster, and the construction manager were familiar with their roles and procedures in postfire recovery, while museum officials were completely unprepared. On the Monday following the fire, the head of the museum committee found that the property management corporation “already had several wheels in motion,” whereas the museum “had nothing in place and no plan of action to speak of” (Pingert 1991, 30). As he recalled, “I was totally bewildered as to where or how we start clean up” (Pingert 1991, 4).

Day 4 began with a museum staff meeting. General duties were assigned for the recovery. Since the senior conservator would be occupied with overseeing the activities of the cleanup committee, the two other conservators on staff were assigned responsibility for the hands-on salvage and recovery of the collection. The conservation laboratory had always had a small contingent of volunteers, and it was expected that they would help out until temporary staff could be hired. With the on-site inspection by fire inspectors completed, members of staff were now given official clearance to enter the building. Though the conservators emphasized the importance of not disturbing the soot layers on the artifacts and requested that access to the gallery be restricted, other members of the staff objected. A compromise was reached that allowed staff members to tour the building to see the damage firsthand. The first emotional exchanges occurred on this day. Museum staff were shocked and upset by the disaster. Those who were used to a certain degree of authority over their area or their collection felt protective and expressed obvious symptoms of personal loss.

Arrangements for the building recovery moved quickly. On day 4, the insurance adjuster called for bids for cleaning of the building and furnishings. In the next two days, the building recovery group completed a schedule and an organization plan for the building recovery, along with specifications for the building trades. The members of the museum cleanup committee then had an opportunity to spend a few hours reviewing the specifications and adding their comments.

The galleries were in total darkness because of the density of the soot coverage and the fact that the fire had burned out some of the electrical circuits, including the lights for the galleries. The conservators had to proceed with the help of portable lights. Samples of soot were collected from various areas of the building and sent by courier to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for analysis. Working from days 4 to 7, the staff conservators conducted tests for soot removal on a range of collection and display materials in various areas of the building, using a kit consisting of brushes, a vacuum, dry-surface-cleaning materials such as erasers, and a variety of solvents and cleaning solutions. Their test results were collated into a report describing the cleaning methods to be used, suggested timelines, and the order in which objects should be cleaned. The report was passed on to the museum cleanup committee.

In the meantime, the museum cleanup committee began to formulate a plan of attack. The damaged museum was examined in detail to determine the multitude of tasks that would be required. Committee members realized that they would have to research everything from where to rent vacuum cleaners to the paint colors required for repainting walls and displays. Under some pressure from the government department in charge of the museum, they identified reopening the museum as the first priority. Curatorial and exhibit staff, who had been working on gallery development, began to realize that they would have to double their efforts in order to re-create damaged displays and speed up the development of galleries for public viewing. Because museum programs had to be revived as quickly as possible, administrative staff and educators were relocated to temporary offices in another government building, although without the benefit of any of their computers, files, or administrative supplies.

At a meeting on day 5, members of staff were told that an analysis of air in the building had been carried out and that it was safe for people to work on-site. Nevertheless, the gallery members group, who were in charge of the museum gift shop and provided most of the volunteer services at the museum, were wary about returning and did not resume their activities at the museum in earnest until a few days later.

On day 5, at the same time that many staff members were shown through the damaged building for the first time, the building recovery group was also conducting a tour for prospective cleaning companies. The head of the museum cleanup committee accompanied the tour to stress the extra considerations that would be required during the cleaning to ensure safety of the museum displays and collections so that the companies could accommodate these precautionary measures in their bid submissions.

On day 6, the museum cleanup committee established a list of priorities. Members of the committee agreed that the overriding goal was to open the museum as quickly as possible. As well, there was the inflexible and tight schedule for building restoration to consider. The Earth Sciences Gallery would be cleaned first, since it was the newest gallery space and the easiest to restore. The First Nations Gallery would be the next priority for cleaning, because it would be the next gallery that could open. Because the upper-level Life Sciences Gallery had sustained extensive damage and was already scheduled for redevelopment, it would not be restored but would be dismantled for renovation as time permitted. The specimens in this gallery and in storage would be cleaned.

Meanwhile, the building recovery group had reviewed the bids, and a commercial cleaning company (the one with the lowest bid) was selected. The company was taken on another tour of the museum by the construction contractor and the head of the museum cleanup committee to provide final instructions and establish priorities and procedures. The members of the museum committee were then told—to their horror—that to make way for the cleaning crew and allow for the cleaning of the building to proceed properly, all collections, administrative, and program materials would have to be removed from the building within four days.

On day 7, museum staff met to plan the salvage projects and develop estimates for the labor, materials, and alternative space that would be needed. The atmosphere at the meeting was frantic. The salvage of artifacts and their removal from the sooty building were discussed, but in the end it was decided that all artifacts would have to stay in the building during the recovery. Moving the delicate mounted specimens out of storage rooms to another location was impossible because of a lack of time and materials, and many artifacts on display were deemed immobile because they were very large, semipermanently mounted, or enclosed within display cases. The building restoration group insurance agent arranged for a moving company to pack and move furnishings and building items covered under the insurance policy. Museum staff and volunteers packed for the transfer of all educational, research, gift shop, and administrative material to temporary office spaces and to various government areas to await cleaning. Local companies were contacted for the rental of vacuum cleaners and supplies of disposable coveralls, dust masks, and latex gloves. In the end, it took seven days, until day 14, and a changing crew of workers (equivalent to about 35 person/days) to pack and remove all the administrative and noncollection program material from the museum. None of the material was vacuumed before removal.

During the second week, beginning on day 7, the two staff conservators began the initial salvage and recovery of museum contents in concert with the building cleaners and construction trades. The building cleaners descended on the building in double shifts, working 24 hours a day. The cleaners completed the first and second cleaning passes in the washrooms and three rooms that could be used as “clean rooms,” before starting on other areas of the building. At the same time, demolition crews began tearing down unrecoverable parts of the building and other burned material. One room was used to store the museum's recovery gear and as a meeting and change room for staff members.

From days 8 to 10, the conservators, volunteers, and a contingent of exhibit staff prepared the Earth Sciences Gallery for the first pass by the commercial cleaners. After a brief instructional session and the posting of simple cleaning rules developed by the conservators (e.g., how to vacuum, which cases to dismantle and which to leave), the display material and some artifacts were vacuumed and movable displays and artifacts were removed to the clean room. Immovable displays were draped with polyethylene to protect them from damage during cleaning operations. The demolition of the First Nations Gallery displays began during this week; parts of the gallery were protected with polyethylene draping, though there was no time to do an initial vacuuming of the items being covered. In parts of the galleries, temporary plywood barricades were erected to ensure that the cleaners would not disturb sensitive areas. The head of the cleanup committee spent the week gathering more supplies and scheduling the activities of the conservation crew in liaison with the building cleanup. As the days progressed, media interest grew and legal investigations intensified, but lacking a communications person on the cleanup committee, interviews and other communications were carried out by the head of the committee (the senior conservator), who was already overburdened with responsibilities.

By day 10, the construction manager had constructed temporary walls to zone off areas of the building, and large vacuum hoses were operating constantly in these zones to remove airborne contaminants. Museum staff turned their attention toward erecting shelving in another designated clean room in the basement. Bird and mammal specimens were moved from their sooty storage room into this somewhat cleaner room, so that their storage room could be cleaned.

During the third week (days 14 to 21), the museum cleanup committee finally had time to complete the paperwork required for staffing temporary positions for technicians. The committee also took part in the first formal meeting with lawyers representing various parties and took them on tours through the building to view damage; communication with insurance and legal representatives continued for several weeks. By the third week, the building cleaners had completed their first pass through the Earth Sciences Gallery, so that the conservation crew could now turn its attention to the tedious task of cleaning collection and display material. Portable lights were still required during cleaning because room lighting could not be installed until after other construction in the gallery was completed. Because museum staff members were occupied with rehabilitating programs and the senior conservator was engaged as head of the cleanup committee, the conservation crew was left with only the two staff conservators, one exhibit staff member, and several volunteers. Extra hiring did not take place until later in the recovery process.

The museum's recovery was carried out in concert with the demolition, cleaning, and reconstruction of the building. The conservation crew fell into a daily routine that involved salvaging displays and artifacts and cleaning in the order that complied with the overall recovery priorities that had been established (for further details on the recovery process, see Spafford-Ricci and Graham 2000). The two recovery paths often collided, and the crew was often forced to reschedule projects, to temporarily abandon partially completed projects, and to move collections from room to room in order to accommodate the building recovery. Even with these annoyances, the progress of conservation was undeniably facilitated by the ability to work in increasingly cleaner spaces and with the benefit of lighting and other necessities.

During week 5, the commercial cleaners completed final cleaning in the upper galleries and were unhappy with the pace of collection salvage in that area. Soot-covered specimens in the upper gallery had been vacuumed but not fully cleaned. The building restoration group indicated that, if sooty displays and specimens were to recontaminate the building, the additional cleaning cost would have to be borne by the museum itself. To prevent the need for additional cleaning, foregrounds from the dioramas would have to be removed. As the staff conservators were occupied with cleaning artifacts in the Earth Sciences Gallery, the first gallery scheduled for reopening, the task of dismantling the dioramas had to be carried out by members of the cleanup committee and volunteers.

The building restoration group completed the cleaning and reconstruction of the building on May 29 (week 15). The conservation crew continued to clean the Earth Sciences Gallery displays and artifacts until late June (week 19). The museum opened its doors, with only the one gallery ready, on June 23, four months and seven days after the fire. Even though one gallery reopened, the cleaning that remained for the conservators was daunting, involving thousands of collection objects and research and education materials. The bulk of the collection and noncollection items were salvaged and cleaned over the next several months. After the museum reopened, the conservators had to divide their attention between disaster recovery and conservation work for the new First Nations Gallery, which was scheduled to open next. This necessity slowed the pace of recovery work considerably. Specimens from the Life Sciences Gallery on the upper level were the last to be recovered. Thick soot had remained on these specimens for too long, and they were in generally poor condition. Their need for conservation attention was considerable, and no funds or staff remained for this stage of collection recovery. In the end most of the specimens from this gallery had to be written off.