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 fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, severe as it was, could have resulted in even greater damage. Several factors mitigated the effects of the disaster. Because of a lack of space in the museum building, some of the collection had been stored off-site in the Museum Annex, and this situation turned out to be a blessing as it spared some of the most sensitive artifacts in the collection. Flame-retardant material used in the construction of the First Nations Gallery slowed the spread of flames and helped prevent further damage and loss of the building itself. Although the conservators had been told in disaster planning workshops that fire departments tended to fight fires with an almost blatant disregard for property, in this case the firefighters were very sensitive to the nature of the building's contents, and the museum found no evidence of damage to any area outside of the fire site due to the fire search and firefighting efforts. There were no objects in the fire-ravaged First Nations Gallery because the gallery was in an early construction phase and conservators had insisted on having paper replicas in place rather than the actual artifacts to determine the way they fit into cases. Finally, the alarm system, such as it was, automatically alerted the fire department and saved the museum from much greater loss.

Nevertheless, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum experienced massive losses during the 1990 fire. Costs of the fire came to C$2 million, and an additional C$4 million were needed for development of a new Life Sciences Gallery, the old gallery being unrecoverable after the soot damage. The museum was completely closed for four months and six days and, in 2000, it is still only partially opened. Gallery development was pushed a total of nine years behind schedule. In addition, there were many undetermined losses, such as rent on the closed building, forgone tourist dollars and gift shop sales, as well as the expense of salaries and diverted staff time. Perhaps most important of all were a loss of public image, the diminishing of the quality of the collection, and the complete loss of some collection materials.

The fire response and recovery at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum could have been much different if the museum had carried out disaster planning. No discussions on disaster planning had taken place, so the museum management and staff were not prepared either psychologically or physically for the fire disaster. More important, they were unprepared relative to the other players involved in the fire recovery. This lack of preparation had a direct effect on the success of the collection recovery and the long-term preservation of the museum's collections. As Ron Borden, then the director of the RSM, told the annual meeting of the Canadian Museums Association: “The most important thing learned is that we were totally unprepared for this emergency. We lacked an effective and well-conceived emergency/disaster plan, a pre-designed strategy ready to be implemented. There wasn't time or clarity of thought to start developing a plan once the fire had happened. There was too much happening all at once, too much to think about, too many demands. This resulted in greatly added stress and pressure, similar to traveling over unfamiliar territory without road signs or a map. We found out that it could be done but having a map with clear directions would have made it a lot easier” (Borden 1991, 7).

Museums must prepare a disaster plan that deals specifically with the issues associated with a fire:

  1. The plan must outline prevention of a fire disaster through activities such as providing a fire watch during construction and ensuring that fire detection and suppression systems are adequate for the special needs of the museum. The plan should be produced in cooperation with fire department personnel, who should be provided with regularly scheduled tours of the museum and a layout of the building delineating areas of importance to firefighters.
  2. Representatives of groups or agencies responsible for providing resources and funds for the costs of recovery must be identified and asked to approve all plans and priorities. Insurance coverage must be thoroughly reviewed with respect to extent of coverage for various areas of the museum's operations. An adjuster of record should be selected at the disaster planning stage and asked to clarify the implications of insurance coverage.
  3. Special provision must be made for security during the response and recovery period, especially in view of the disruption of normal security procedures and the increased risk to valuable—and often irreplaceable—artifacts.
  4. The plan should identify the various “owners” or primary stakeholders who will be involved in the response and recovery phases. Their roles and priorities should be fully disclosed.
  5. The plan should clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of museum management and staff and all those who are likely to participate in the response and recovery phases, including outside companies and trades, museum personnel, volunteers, and temporary staff. The disaster planning process should identify rapid mechanisms for hiring and gathering of resources. Requisite documentation by staff of postdisaster activities should be noted in a disaster plan.
  6. The plan should include recovery plans for the building, exhibits, and other areas, drawn up by the departments concerned.
  7. The plan should identify the major stages following a fire disaster (an outline of events that will occur in the initial response phase, which includes triage and salvage, and the later recovery phase) and set out a list of priorities. The salvage of the collection must be marked for early attention.
  8. The plan should emphasize the critical importance of effective external and internal communications during the aftermath of a fire disaster. It should further provide for a communications officer to organize internal communications, coordinate incoming offers of aid, and work with the media, gallery members and volunteers, and the public in general.
  9. Conservators have the largest impact on collection safety during the preparation of the disaster plan and should participate actively in its development. The role of conservation must be clearly defined, particularly in relation to the recovery of the collection. Depending on the availability of conservation assistance, the plan may provide for the organization of two response and recovery teams, one to clean objects designated by curators and other decision makers, and the other to work on objects identified on the basis of conservation criteria during triage.
  10. The plan should include a list of specific procedures and guidelines to be followed in the early response to sooty objects: posting a warning sign at disaster sites, prioritizing collection objects for treatment, communicating special handling techniques, setting up appropriate temporary storage areas, and initial vacuuming to prepare the objects for later treatment during the recovery phase.

It is important to emphasize that disaster contingency planning must take place in the context of a museum's overall operations. It is only by creating a document that addresses the complex interplay of all facets of a museum recovery—operations, building, museum materials, displays, and the collection—that the position of the collection within a disaster plan can be secured. With priorities clearly defined and an overall plan for museum recovery in place, conservators will be assured that procedures and techniques laid out for the effective salvage and recovery of a fire-ravaged museum collection can be put into action during a real disaster situation.


The authors would like to thank Ron Borden, the director of the RSM at the time of the fire, for allowing us to share candid accounts of postfire activities for the benefit of the greater museum community. The authors would also like to acknowledge Ron Borden and the current director, David Baron, for their outstanding leadership in the complete rehabilitation of the museum and its operations following the fire. Finally, the authors would like to offer their indebtedness to the late Don Pingert, former senior conservator, who led the fire recovery at the museum with the same skill and diligence that marked his 30-plus years of unwavering dedication to collections care at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.