JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )




Although the response and recovery were successful because all materials were saved, the staff still felt that the disaster recovery manual needed to be revised and improved. The chain of command to deal with disasters was reorganized and strengthened as well. The society now has a Disaster Action Team (DAT), composed of an emergency plan coordinator, personnel manager, media manager, collection manager, conservator, photographer, protective services manager, safety and welfare supervisor, security and building supervisor, and equipment and transportation supervisor. Three staff members are designated for each position. If the first person is unavailable, the next person on the list will serve in that position. The DAT team also includes the salvage and cleanup teams that will be assigned during the actual emergency. A job description and list of duties are outlined in the disaster plan for each position. The completion of the manual became a priority. Current names of sources of services and supplies were added. The telephone tree for the staff was updated and will be revised every six months. Members of the Virginia Conservation Association were included as a part of the tree. Salvage priorities and instructions for drying each type of collection material from all curatorial departments were amended. We realized that conservators and curators should work with collection salvage as much as possible; other personnel will be assigned such tasks as contacting people on the telephone tree. Copies of the disaster plan and telephone tree will be located in the homes of all administrative personnel and also at a neighboring institution, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The disaster plan as a whole is scheduled to be revised every two years by the Disaster Prevention Team, which consists of the head of building operations, the head of technical services, a conservator, and an administrative officer.

A new ambient-temperature alarm, which sounds when the temperature in the room drops below 40F, was installed in the third-floor mechanical room. In the wintertime, an insulation panel is placed over the louver vent in the mechanical room to prevent any cold air from reaching the fire-suppression pipe. The mechanical rooms are cleaned regularly and checked daily.

On the first day of disaster recovery, attendance by staff and volunteers was high. As early as the second day, the number of recovery workers was reduced by half. The attrition rate was exacerbated by the fact that the disaster occurred over a two-day holiday immediately preceding a weekend. Response was a volunteer effort by staff and others. Stabilization of the collection could have been accomplished more quickly and effectively had greater numbers of people been available on the second and subsequent days of recovery.

The staff at the society learned not to store collection materials on the floor. If the manuscript boxes had been on pallets, the water damage could have been reduced. The conservator made the decision to air-dry the manuscripts based on communication received concerning the quantity of wet manuscripts. In retrospect, the 40 boxes of manuscripts should have been sent to the freezer, then vacuum-freeze-dried. Also, in the future, boxes of materials sent to be frozen will be inventoried by call number. Because no such inventory was made, it was difficult to determine for insurance purposes which materials were out of the building.

Disaster recovery plans and the chain of command in the event of an emergency should recognize that people react differently in a crisis situation. Emotions run very high. Colleagues who are perfectly congenial and professional under normal circumstances may behave in counterproductive ways during a disaster and recovery when asked to perform tasks outside their usual course of duties. Because of stress, communication can be ineffective. People given authority by the command post to complete certain tasks should be assisted and not thwarted. Lack of cooperation hampers the response time.

In visually documenting the disaster by camcorder, the operator made a serious error. In the excitement of the event, he taped over the main body of the documentation of the disaster. Only a six-minute section filmed at the end of the disaster remains for posterity.

As conservators, we recommend that other institutions develop close associations with other conservators and institutions in their area to call upon in times of crisis. This list of people can be added to the phone tree in the disaster plan. Not every institution has expertise in every field.

In conclusion, the Virginia Historical Society did not lose any of the materials that were water-damaged when the fire-suppression pipe burst. Now the society has the DAT with assigned duties and personnel. This organization of responsibility will assist us in avoiding the mistakes of this disaster, such as thwarted and ineffective communication and visual documentation problems. Having duties assigned before a disaster strikes will assist in keeping more people involved through the entire disaster recovery process. The society was fortunate to have the assistance of the VCA and the University of Richmond staff. It is the responsibility of conservators to continue to educate and assist each other in issues concerning disasters in order to preserve historic and artistic works.


The authors wish to thank Sara B. Bearss, managing editor, Virginia Historical Society, for her assistance in preparing this paper.