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 )




The RSM fire response and recovery involved complex actions for the entire building by many players and external agencies. Their roles have been examined in a previous article (Spafford and Graham 1993).

Considering the enormity of the disaster at the RSM, it is remarkable that the recovery teams were able to reestablish programs immediately, open a portion of the museum within 18 weeks, and continue, although behind schedule, with gallery renovations. However, in comparison, the rehabilitation of the collection itself was less successful. Although thousands of artifacts were salvaged and cleaned, many others were not salvaged until months after the fire, and some never did receive conservation attention. In April 1991, more than a year after the fire, the head of the cleanup committee reported that work on the recovery of the collection had come to an end: “I do not,” he wrote, “have money or staff available to complete fire clean up” (Pingert 1991, 29).

In the final analysis, it is apparent that the decisions, priorities and strategies established at the RSM within—and often determined before—the response period (the first two weeks) led to a postdisaster environment that compromised the recovery of the museum's collection. The following is an analysis of the primary factors affecting the RSM collection that may help other conservators to better prepare for a response to a fire disaster.


The museum had been under renovation for some time. Looking back, it is evident that precautions taken to ensure a proper degree of fire prevention and detection were inadequate (Baril 1990, 1991). Smoke detectors in the gallery were capped to prevent clogging or activation from renovation dust; although this is standard practice at work sites, the caps should have been removed at the end of each working day. A “fire watch” or patrol should have been provided to check the area after the contractor had finished each day. The fire and security alarm system was compromised during renovations: the fire detection system was not fully zoned and zones were only partially wired into the alarm system (which meant that the fire department had no clue where to find the fire within the building), the central air duct ionization smoke detector failed to shut down the ventilation system, and magnetic locks on the exterior and fire doors failed to release. The fire department was unable to locate the fire annunciation panel—a panel that records alarms in fire detection zones, which was to be found beneath the lobby reception desk. In addition, the fire search was hindered by the locked doors, by internal doors that locked behind the firefighters, and by a complicated, winding new gallery plan that was unfamiliar to the firefighters, who had to feel their way along the floor where the soot was less dense, carrying with them lines of hose and a limited supply of air (Usherwood 1991).

The fire-retardant materials in the gallery prevented destruction of the building. But the effects of the fire might have been further mitigated by the installation of fire detection and suppression systems designed to meet the needs of the museum rather than the minimal requirements of the Canadian building code, which are not considered adequate for museums (Baril 1991). In general, museums should have a zoned sprinkler system and a fully zoned monitored detection system that includes smoke detection in every room with collections (Baril 1989). The system should be connected directly to the fire station or to a central station, monitored 24 hours a day, that interprets alarms (such a sensitive system will have some alarms that do not require the intervention of the fire department) and alerts fire and police stations. In modern museum buildings with direct digital control of an HVAC system, it is possible to contain smoke-filled air and evacuate it from the building when a fire is detected. This system is described further by Sarah Spafford and Fiona Graham (1993).

Museum personnel should also prepare a fire preplan as part of a disaster plan. The preplan should contain floor plans and identify hazardous materials, as well as the location of the annunciation panel, hose boxes, and other features important to the fire department. The plan, which must be developed in cooperation with the fire department, could also identify collection storage areas as secondary search rooms, in order to protect them from soot infiltration during a search, and priority collections that should be saved, covered up, or protected by redirecting a fire. Firefighters (all shifts) must be given regular tours of the museum so that they are familiar with its layout (Dubois and Fletcher 1991).


The difference in the type and extent of insurance coverage for the various portions of the building and its contents was the most important factor in the prioritization of actions in the response and recovery at the RSM. The building and its furnishings were covered under private insurance, but the museum's collection and noncollection materials were self-insured. Although some funding was available for the recovery of the collection, the actual financing could not be mobilized quickly. This situation put the museum staff in a position of deference in relation to building recovery. The insurance-driven building recovery was expedited by the rapid provision of funds that allowed the scheduling and completing of tasks with confidence. In addition, the insurance-driven players were already experienced in disaster response and recovery.

Almost every article on postfire experiences in the conservation literature tells of difficulties that have arisen with respect to insurance claims. Because a disaster recovery is extremely expensive, museums will depend upon using the full extent of their insurance coverage. This arrangement places the insurance adjuster in a position of power, with the mandate to advise on the prioritization of activities in a disaster recovery. This reprioritization occurred at the RSM when the insurance adjuster noted that the building insurance might be compromised by recontamination of the building with soiled artifacts. In addition, the head of the cleanup committee was concerned that the extent of insurance coverage on the building could be affected by delaying building cleanup in favor of collection salvage and recovery (Pingert 1991). It was fortunate that, during the RSM recovery, the insurance adjuster and construction manager were prepared to do what they could to accommodate the museum collection, as long as it did not hinder the progress of building recovery, and the relationship among the parties turned out to be amicable. The landlord's project manager explained: “Theoretically the owner loses a good portion of control over the building after a disaster. The insurance agent sort of takes over the building …. He could have said that we could not move the animals into the discovery room, but had to remove all of it from the building. He could also have told us to leave all the stuff in the [Earth Sciences] gallery and not move it out into a clean room. All of this was a compromise on his part” (Arndt 1991).

The collection recovery at the RSM was underfunded and lacked adequate resources. The body or agency holding the money will ultimately wield the greatest power in a postdisaster museum recovery. Its representatives should be identified in the disaster planning process and asked to approve all plans and priorities. Without this agreement, a disaster plan will have no use in a real disaster situation. A disaster planning process should further identify whether a museum's building and contents, as well as its collection, have inequitable or incomplete insurance coverage and whether insurance coverage will be affected by compromising one recovery activity in favor of another. A particular insurance adjuster, called an “adjuster of record,” should be chosen at the disaster planning stage. The adjuster of record can then clarify the implications of insurance coverage with regard to the priorities in a disaster recovery (Paget 1991).

4.3 4.3 SECURITY

During the hectic disaster response and recovery following the RSM fire, precautions to protect the collection from theft or accidental damage were almost nonexistent. Museum staff members were too busy with recovery activities to increase their vigilance over museum material or to insist upon additional security staff. Fire inspectors, insurance adjusters, contractors, cleaners, and many other nonmuseum staff came and went out of any door at will. Manual security systems were not functioning, and it is not clear whether all of the electronic systems were functioning. Certainly in the earlier stages of the recovery, electrical wiring for security doors in the area of the fire had not yet been replaced. Although the RSM did not lose any exhibit materials or collections, other tools and supplies may have gone astray. In his postfire comments, the head of the museum cleanup committee stated, “Should such a situation arise in the future, we could certainly benefit from having an emergency security plan in place” (Pingert 1991, 31).


There were an unanticipated number of “owners” who came to play an important role in the decision-making process during the response to the fire. Like many museums in Canada, the governance and management of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum are somewhat complicated. The museum has more than one “owner” with a vested interest in the management of the facility and its operations: the museum is under the direct governance of the province of Saskatchewan; the building that houses the museum is managed by a landlord (a provincial government property management corporation); the gift shop is owned and managed by the museum associates (a membership organization); and the grounds are owned and maintained by a municipal authority.

During day-to-day operations, the balance of power and authority among these different “owners” is well understood, and the mandates of each are predictable. However, during the RSM fire, the balance of power was altered and the mandates of each group became unpredictable and somewhat divergent. Each owner had its own project manager and its own vested interest and priorities. Government officials encouraged museum management to open the building immediately, the museum staff wished to recover exhibits and collection materials, and the property owners pushed toward building cleanup and refurbishment. The property owners even feared that soiled collection objects would eventually recontaminate their clean building.

The mandates and the power of such groups as governing agencies, museum boards, membership organizations, landlords, and property managers will take on a new importance during the decision-making process that guides a disaster recovery. Therefore, the role that these “owners” will play in a disaster recovery should be examined and their priorities fully disclosed when planning for a disaster response. It is likely that their priorities—and those of the insurance adjusters—will become the overriding priorities for the process of disaster recovery. Conservators must be able to mesh effective collection salvage and recovery with these other priorities.


One of the most successful aspects of the RSM fire recovery was the insistence by management that all staff keep track of their postdisaster activities. One year after the fire, staff members were asked to write reports on their own activities, experiences, and emotions during the fire response and recovery. This collective documentation proved very useful to postfire analyses undertaken by the various parties engaged in the fire recovery.

Decisions made by RSM management with respect to disaster response for the collection were contingent upon agreement from other government managers and departments. As a result, the process of collection recovery at the RSM was hampered by outside constraints on management's ability to make quick decisions and take rapid action. Since the museum collection was self-insured by the provincial government, the process of making funds available was slow, and decision making was typical of government bureaucracy, whose processes alter little in a disaster situation. Expenditures in excess of the annual museum budget had to be approved by the highest level of government, often by a meeting of the provincial cabinet. Although the museum was promised that hiring of technical assistants would be “fast-tracked,” the process was too slow for the pace of disaster response and the first of four assistants did not begin work until a full three and a half months after the fire. Since the only precedent for this type of hiring in the past was for summer assistance, the extra staff were employed for only a four-month period.

One of the primary purposes of a disaster planning process is to identify rapid mechanisms for hiring and gathering adequate resources. The RSM experience shows that these processes should be clearly detailed and include timelines so that everyone's definition of “rapid” is the same.


After a disaster, a museum collection becomes one of the many furnishings, albeit the most important one, that has to be cleaned and repaired, and, in the midst of disaster recovery, its position cannot easily be separated from the whole recovery project. From a logistical point of view, the RSM had to face this reality head on, since most of the displays and collections were salvaged and recovered within a building that itself was being restored. It would have been impossible to remove all the objects from the museum building in the days before the building recovery began. Many objects were immobile (e.g., objects in dioramas) or too large (e.g., dinosaur skeletons) or were safer left inside display cases rather than being brought out into a sooty environment. The lack of electricity and working elevators, along with the presence of physical barriers and the harsh winter weather, slowed removal of the noncollection contents of the building. Even with an adequate disaster plan and an abundance of assistance and money, it is unrealistic to suppose that the museum staff could have removed the collection within a reasonable amount of time without jeopardizing the insurance coverage on the building and contents. One of the most significant lessons learned by the RSM conservators was the importance of having a museum fire disaster plan that takes into consideration the likelihood of overlap, and possible conflict, between the activities of object salvage and recovery and the restoration of the museum building and its fittings.

Even so, during a disaster recovery there is only so much money, time, and attention available, and it is to the conservator's advantage that noncollection concerns do not take up the bulk of these limited resources. For example, at the RSM, if the exhibit department had recorded relevant recovery details during a disaster planning process (such as how to take apart exhibit cases, what colors should be used when displays are replaced, and where to buy replacement pedestals), exhibit staff members would have had more time to participate in the recovery of their display material, thereby leaving more time for the conservators to address conservation of the collection. A significant effort was directed to researching exhibits and building renovations for structural information needed by building cleaners and contractors. Because a disaster always involves more than just a museum collection, a disaster recovery plan must include the recovery plans for the building, exhibits, and other areas, in addition to the collection, and these should be researched and written by the department in question. These plans can then be brought together to represent the entire disaster response and recovery approach.


During and after a fire, human safety is paramount. Fire officials have the legal right—and the responsibility—to close off a building for inspections until a full investigation is completed and human safety can be ensured. This authority means that salvage of objects will only begin days after a museum fire, and conservators will be forced to wait on the sidelines instead of being able to rescue artifacts. An externally imposed waiting period can give the misguided impression that the wheels are not in motion for a recovery. In fact, as conservators at the RSM learned, during the first few days following the fire, decisions were being made that would set the course for the recovery. It is important to establish conservation priorities prior to being thrust into a disaster response. After a disaster strikes, events move quickly, emotions are high, and conservation concerns can be pushed to the side.

In the day-to-day operations of a museum facility, resources and time are balanced between the care of a museum collection and accessibility to the collection through exhibits and public programming. Museums promote accessibility as part of their marketing strategy to secure funding dollars and public support. During a disaster, these priorities do not change; a museum is seen as a liability without a public face, and damaged collections can be an embarrassment that may diminish the future of the museum. In the midst of a disaster, decision makers will try to put the best face on the recovery and to show progress by restoring those areas that are easiest to rehabilitate.

It is particularly important to “strike while the iron is hot” in the recovery of collections following a disaster. During the initial stages, interest in and resources for collection recovery will be at their highest. However, it is also during this stage that pressing issues will dominate, such as relocating staff, reestablishing programs, and ensuring the structural rehabilitation of a museum building. The overwhelming priority will likely be to complete the recovery of public areas and exhibitions so that the museum can be reopened. After a fire, there may be a tendency to delay thorough cleaning of the collection, particularly since soot removal is perceived to be a lengthy and delicate process. As was the case at the RSM, soot is often perceived by decision makers to be unreactive and benign. In fact, as the recovery progressed at the RSM, conservators found that over time the soot became more difficult to remove and required more invasive methods of cleaning with stronger cleaning materials. The soot itself was slightly acidic, and the fine soot particles produced an overall pigmentation of an artifact surface that was visually unacceptable. The false perception that soot is benign has serious consequences for the condition of artifacts when it leads to delays in salvage and cleaning efforts, as it did in the RSM fire, or when it affects funds from insurance companies as reported after the Stony Brook furnace puff-back (Armstrong et al. 1981).

As the recovery at the RSM moved into its final stages, the conservators found that general interest in the disaster subsided and less could be accomplished. With less general interest, financing and labor were harder to come by and, in fact, were exhausted before collection recovery was complete. In addition, the disaster recovery itself took a toll on the collection, which had to be handled and moved to different storage locations, causing dispersion and embedding of soot layers that made soot removal more difficult.

To ensure the highest degree of success for conservation treatments, conservators involved in a fire response must take immediate action. This path of action is best accomplished if the disaster response team agrees to the immediate salvage of the collection as a priority, develops a simple set of guidelines for this salvage, and assigns a team to this project. Salvage should include direct vacuuming to remove surface soot from all affected artifacts.


Overall, the lack of a communications plan plagued the museum's ability to master the fire recovery process at the RSM (Borden 1991). Communications for the museum were normally handled through a different government department at the RSM. For this reason, the staff had little experience in communication with the public and the media, and no one was appointed to lead communications during the disaster recovery. Volunteers who wished to assist in the recovery did not know whom to speak to, media interviews and meetings with officials dominated the time of the cleanup committee, and offers of financial assistance from the public were not capitalized upon. The lack of a communications plan led to an inability to convey the grave importance of collection recovery to the public and to mobilize resources and assistance from the community.

Public relations were further hampered by the fact that the property managers restricted the amount and type of information that could be disclosed to the staff and the public. However, concern regarding future litigation proceedings placed only minor limits on communication during the recovery. The fact that the museum was self-insured resulted in looser restrictions on communications than would have been present with the involvement of a private insurance firm. Although litigation did proceed against the insulation company, these proceedings did not begin until one year after the fire and were not completed until three years later.

The disaster attracted a great deal of attention from the media, members of the public, and schoolchildren, who sent letters to the museum. Internally, communications were made more complex by the number of groups involved in the recovery. In the aftermath of the fire, the burden of external and internal communications was assumed by the head of the museum cleanup committee (the senior conservator), who could least afford the time. He later reflected: “While I was happy for the publicity and sympathy that was being generated I was also concerned about the time I was spending away from what I felt were more pressing issues.” The major difficulty, he said, was “no one really knowing what was going on …. After the first few weeks after the fire I got the impression that staff felt they were not being kept informed of what was happening …. We need a system of communication established that will allow staff to feel informed even if it is only to tell them we do not know what is happening” (Pingert 1991, 30).

It is standard in disaster planning to identify the person who will assume responsibility for communications. The RSM experience shows that this position is particularly important to the success of the collection recovery, since the public is sympathetic to the need to rehabilitate a museum's precious collections and can fuel pressure to concentrate on collection recovery. Internally, conservators must also be aware of the need to communicate the state of their recovery efforts to the museum staff and to the director of communications for the recovery.


Following the fire at the RSM, the staff conservators were given responsibility for the collection recovery operations, and the senior conservator was appointed to head the museum cleanup committee. At the beginning, the appointment was regarded by the conservation department as an opportunity to encourage conservation concerns, but as time went on it was apparent that the recovery priorities were already determined by outside pressures, and the senior conservator could do little to change the course of collection recovery. Museum management had no authority or funds to hire the extra staff needed and no control over delays caused by bureaucratic processes. Instead of being able to participate in collection recovery, the time of the senior conservator was taken up with administering the overall cleanup, researching and overseeing activities involving noncollection materials, communications and public relations, and other essential tasks. “My own work schedule was completely disrupted,” he wrote in a final report on the disaster. “Everything was put on hold while I dealt with coordinating the fire clean up. I feel I am close to a year behind with other work that had been put on hold” (Pingert 1991, 3).

The scope of a disaster recovery reaches far beyond collection conservation. Conservators should consider carefully before assuming positions that involve coordination and overall authority that will take time away from the tasks of effective salvage and recovery of the collection, particularly if the conservation department is short of staff members to handle the emergency. In the matter of authority following a disaster, the RSM conservators concluded that while there were advantages to having conservators involved in decisions affecting collections, a more effective means of ensuring collections safety is to act effectively at the disaster planning stage. Conservators need to identify the persons who will make decisions in a postdisaster situation and educate them about the priorities of conservation in a recovery. These individuals—upper management, the museum board, insurance adjusters, and so on—are in a better position to cut through red tape at a time when speed is paramount. It is easier to instill an understanding of conservation concerns before a disaster strikes than to try to change entrenched ideas in the midst of an emergency.

In the aftermath of the fire, during the recovery phase, the RSM conservators soon found that they were regarded as the “cleaning experts.” They accepted responsibility for cleaning all objects that the museum owned—not just collection artifacts but also displays and educational and research materials. In hindsight, it is clear that a more inclusive approach to salvage and recovery, involving the assistance of other staff members, would have improved the process. It would have also ensured that potential sources of assistance were not excluded and would have led to better communication and understanding of the collection recovery process on the part of nonconservation museum staff.


In addition to a slow hiring process, the RSM disaster response was plagued by a severe lack of paid labor. The hands-on collection response and recovery were carried out by the senior conservator (to the extent that he could spare the time from his other duties), the 2 full-time staff conservators, approximately 20 volunteers who worked periodic hours, and 4 full-time assistants employed over a four-month period. Because a measurable amount of labor must be put into a disaster recovery, the time recovery will take will be extended if the project is understaffed. This situation is to the detriment of collection recovery, which will take up the bulk of the total hours devoted to the restoration of the museum.

During the early part of the recovery effort, the efforts of the conservators were concentrated on organizing and cleaning noncollection material such as display and replica objects. For a disaster plan to be effective, as many workers as possible should be made available for postfire salvage and recovery. A disaster plan should identify different types of museum materials (for example, replicas, diorama backdrops, deaccessioned material used in educational programs and research materials) that are museum assets and should be cleaned carefully but do not require the labor of a conservator. Cleaning of this material could be undertaken by commercial cleaners or by a crew of staff, volunteers, or technicians in liaison with a conservator. To adequately plan a response to a fire, simple salvage techniques must be clearly laid out at the planning stage, and a team of trained personnel should be identified for salvage of the collections. RSM conservators found that initial soot removal at the salvage stage did not always have to be carried out by conservators but could be handled by others with a basic knowledge in care and handling of artifacts and the ability to follow specific instruction on the techniques used in salvage of soot-covered objects. The conservators concluded that the most important determining factor in the success of soot removal from a given object was whether it had received direct vacuuming as soon as possible after the fire. This vacuuming adds extra time to a salvage process, and a sufficient number of persons must be set aside for this activity.

During collection recovery after a disaster, it is the assumption of most conservators that the objects in most urgent need of soot removal will be the first to receive in-depth cleaning. The RSM conservators found that, in practice, this sequence may not always be possible, and conservators may be asked instead to concentrate their efforts on objects that are easier to clean and place back on display. It is recommended that the safety of a collection can best be served by planning for the possibility of two cleaning teams that would work concurrently—one team would clean those objects that are designated as the priority by the curators and other decision makers, and the other would work on the recovery of objects that are identified on the basis of conservation criteria during triage.