JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 9 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 9 (pp. to )

DISASTER RECOVERY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA, OR, EVERY FLOOD HAS A SILVER LINING

SHIRLEY ELLIS



2 2. SALVAGE

One very cold Alberta morning, Sunday, December 22, 1996, at -35C, an emergency call went out to staff, students, and volunteers. A flood had occurred in the University of Alberta Clothing and Textiles Collection sometime during the weekend. The exact time was never established, but given the fact that some of the artifacts were already dry when the flood was discovered, we can only speculate. During renovations to the building, a fitting had broken on a pipe two floors above. Significant damage had occurred to the collection, with dirty water pouring from the ceiling into the compactor storage unit. The water was light brown, probably colored by the golden-colored insulation material of the ceiling tiles as well as by the dirt it picked up along its travels. The water was later analyzed, but the cause of the color was inconclusive. The gas chromatography–infrared analysis (GCIR) showed trace organics, including phthalates and long chain acids such as oleic acid. Small amounts of calcium and magnesium were revealed in the inductively coupled plasma emission spectroscopy (ICP) analysis.

The salvage team of 12, headed by Suzanne McLean, curatorial technician, worked efficiently, making the salvage operation a success. Staff came in from the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services, as well as from the Department of Human Ecology, where the collection is housed. The curator, curatorial technician, conservator, and administrative officer worked together to deal with the emergency. Students and volunteers from the museum community braved the cold and graciously came in to help.

Artifacts were removed from the storage unit and dealt with according to their degree of wetness. With only two domestic chest freezers available, space was limited, so only those clothing and textile artifacts that were soaked were contained in clear polyethylene bags and frozen. Those that were only slightly damp were moved to tables or hanging racks and allowed to air-dry. A number of rolled textiles were among those soaked. The largest chest freezer available in the Home Economics Building was not long enough to accommodate these rolls, so an alternative for frozen storage was sought. Fortunately, the Provincial Museum of Alberta has a walk-in freezer used for its natural history collection. Several long, rolled textiles were transported there for interim storage.

Detailed lists of artifacts were generated throughout the salvage and recovery stages, as well as photographs of the entire operation. These assisted with the recovery and insurance claims. Recording the artifacts' temporary location, condition as to degree and location of wetness, and dye transfer was found to provide invaluable sources of information in their recovery. Throughout the recovery process, a tally was kept of the accession number, object name, and treatment hours, both proposed and actual. This tally was useful in keeping track of complete and incomplete treatments, as well as for insurance purposes.

Once the immediate crisis was over that Sunday, a review of the damage and plans for the treatment of the artifacts began. A global time estimate for all damaged artifacts was produced for the insurance adjusters and to determine staffing needs. Those artifacts that were moved to the tables or hanging racks to dry were examined so that a time estimate for treatment could be established. Proposing a time estimate for the frozen artifacts was more difficult since many were bagged and frozen before a conservator could examine them. For these artifacts an estimate was established by viewing the frozen artifact through the bag and by reviewing the initial artifact tags and lists. Since in most cases the estimates were completed in haste, the time proposed for treatment of all artifacts was doubled to allow for treatments that would inevitably go over time. In the end it was found that the actual treatment-hour total for all artifacts was only 50% greater than the original estimate.

A few weeks following the flood, those artifacts left out to dry were moved back into the storage compactor unit. At this time it was noticed that there were more flood-damaged artifacts than originally identified. A thorough examination of all objects was needed. Two staff members and one volunteer reexamined each artifact and found an additional 184 possible casualties. Note that only 136 were retrieved during the salvage operation. This error is likely attributed to the urgency of the situation. Water was still pouring into the compactor unit when the first of the salvage team arrived; they needed to work quickly. Time to examine each object thoroughly was simply not available. Also, numerous volunteers with varying levels of expertise were helping. Their ability to properly identify water damage varied. But even with the second survey of the collection, damaged artifacts continued to be found throughout the recovery process.

With the list of damaged artifacts now totaling just over 300, a priority system was developed, and objects were treated accordingly. Priority 1 objects generally received treatment first and included the frozen artifacts and those that exhibited dye transfer. Priority 2 objects, which generally had obvious tide lines, were treated next. Priority 3 objects were treated last. The damage on these objects may have existed before the flood, and was not conclusively caused by it.

Seven contract and volunteer conservators worked throughout the course of the flood recovery. All were trained textile conservators with varying levels of experience. Those at an entry level in the profession were involved with tasks such as condition-reporting the Priority 2 and 3 artifacts, and following up with straightforward treatments including wet-cleaning or spot removal. Those with more experience focused on treatments with a higher level of difficulty. These included dye transfer and spot-removing tide lines on clothing or textiles that posed an inherent challenge due to their construction, yarn or weave structure, or fiber content. To maintain some consistency, the treatments guidelines (table 1) were established for photography; handling of the treatment procedure, which included retrieving previous conservation and/or student documentation reports; and utilizing standardized condition and treatment forms that were adapted for the flood.

Guidelines for Documentation/Treatment Procedures of Flood-Damaged Textiles
Prior to treating the txeile, retrieve any existing documentation that may elaborate on dimensions, method of manufacture, fiber identification, or anything else that may help in the decision making for treatment.Once the decision for treatment is made, prepare the work area, as other conservators may be using the equipment and/or space.Record as much information as possible on the condition/treatment report provided. Without going into great detail, record the overall condition of the object even though it may not be related to the water damage, e.g., tears, holes, etc. These aspects of the object's condition may be affected by the subsequent treatment. Try to follow the worksheet provided.If possible, do a fiber identification or record your assumption(s) followed by a “?”.Photodocument the object before and after treatment, and during if deemed necessary.Vacuum dry textiles prior to any wet treatments.Secure with netting any holes, weaknesses, tears, and so on prior to cleaning.Record as much information as possible about the wet-cleaing/drying procedure, e.g., pH, temperature, detergent concentration, time spent in baths, color of bath (soil removal, dye loss), use of fans, drying cloths, dye migration.Record procedur, solution concentration, and pH of any spot treatments.Note any other observations on he worksheet in the space provided: Was the treatment successful, did anything unusual occur, how were the objcts stored (frozen)?Record the time spent for documentation and treatment.