THE TREASURY BUILDING FIRE OF 1996: PROTECTING CULTURAL RESOURCES IN A NONMUSEUM ENVIRONMENT
Paula A. Mohr
4 4. LESSONS LEARNED
As a result of the fire, a number of important additions have been made to the emergency plan. The plan before the fire focused primarily on emergency situations that related to the public tours. The plan has been greatly expanded to address a range of emergency situations that could impact the building and the collection, including fire, explosion, theft, and power loss. For each emergency, procedures are outlined, assignments and responsibilities are identified, and a list of parties to be notified is provided. During the Treasury fire, access to the building became one of the largest obstacles. As a result, the curatorial emergency plan now includes security clearance information for contractors and their vehicles. The curatorial staff has also placed an emergency cart stocked with rolls of plastic, flashlights, registrarial supplies, disposable cameras, and other items in a nearby building. Finally, once a year the entire collection inventory is printed, and copies are placed in the residences of curatorial staff members.
In responding to this emergency, the staff realized the importance of having component parts of objects identified with accession numbers. While this high level of registrarial work is routinely done by most museums, for a collection within a federal building it is unusual. During the Treasury recovery effort, 19th-century bookcases were disassembled quickly and removed from the building. When it came time to reassemble these pieces, matching bookshelves to the proper bookcase and the proper position within the bookcase became a time-consuming effort.
During the response, signage became an extremely useful tool, and fortunately the staff had access to a computer. Signs that provided cautions, and requests that fans be left on and doors be left open, were a simple yet effective way for the staff to control the treatment of historic fabric in the damaged section of the building.
A visible presence was important, too. The staff attempted to balance attendance at planning meetings with monitoring the activity in the field. While both were important, decisions made in meetings were often transitory and were frequently reversed or modified. Particularly in the beginning, when time was of the essence, it was more valuable to be working with the personnel who were directly involved with the evacuation of the collection and the cleanup of the building.
During the cleanup effort, responding to the momentum of getting the building reopened proved to be the most significant challenge. This experience highlighted the reality that in any recovery operation, protecting cultural resources is not done in a vacuum. It may be even more the case in a building that functions as a modern office building and where other issues and goals need to be addressed. A balance of protecting the cultural assets of the building while preserving security and expeditiously returning the building to operational status had to be achieved and maintained.