as prepared as possible

Over the past couple of years, there have been some major disasters around the world. One often-overlooked aspect of these events is their effect on the heritage industry – the museums, galleries and historic places that are in the impact zone.

Staff practice the skills needed to recover paper-based objects after a small clean-water incident.

The earthquakes that have been occurring for over a year in Christchurch have had our full attention here at HBMAG.  Whirling around in our institutional thoughts are: the damage to, and temporary closures of, the Canterbury Museum and the Christchurch Art Gallery.  The Gallery remains closed to the public until 2013 while city council staff are based there, and the Museum is temporally closed whilst further engineering reports are being commissioned and assessed.  We hear too of the exceptional assistance that the Air Force Museum has provided to smaller Christchurch institutions.

As our collection move finished and our building renovations began, we reviewed our own institutional disaster preparedness.  Are we prepared to handle such surprise events?

While these thoughts were busily percolating away, Napier City Council contacted the Museum with an offer to attend a training course they had arranged with Triptych Conservation on collection recovery skills for archives, libraries and museums after a water-based incident.  This was a full day course of hands-on practice.  Attendees learnt safe methods of picking up and moving wet papers, books and photographs as well as how to set up areas for sorting objects, and how to track the movement of objects.  There was also a section providing advice on setting up a disaster response team.

Staff discussing clean-water recovery techniques

After the training course, there was much discussion within the Museum as to what we would need to do to put together our own comprehensive disaster plan.  The training session provided a clear understanding of why such a plan, and relevant staff training, would be a worthy investment of staff time.  It also provided the impetus we needed to go ahead with creating the necessary documents.

Research has shown that Dplan ( was the best way to develop our own plan. DPlan provides a template to complete and stores your information securely online for free.  It has two different versions so that the joining institution can develop their plan at whatever level is most appropriate for them.  Five staff members were chosen to be part of the disaster response team and lead development of the plan.

It took the team just over four months to complete the disaster plan.  Among the things we had to do were: filling disaster bins with supplies ready for use in any disaster; investigating off-site locations that the collection could be moved to if need be – both locally and further afield; assigning all staff to their roles in the recovery teams; contacting possible sources of supplies to get emergency contact information; mapping the locations of the water and gas turn-off valves, etc.  

Having a disaster plan in place puts the Museum in a strong position, but it is the staff that are our most important resource.  Everyone on the team needs to know what the plan is for and how to use it so training is vital.  One of the most important activities of the disaster response team is to develop a wide-ranging and interesting ongoing training plan.

Items salvaged during staff training start to air dry

Our initial training was a presentation by Civil Defence on how to prepare our homes and families for a disaster.  Since then, training has included salvaging wet archive material and a test-run of removing the highest-priority objects from the collection store under time-pressure.   Future training will include organising supplies and logistics and a joint fire-response exercise with the Napier Fire Department where, after they practice putting a fire out, we practice cleaning up the objects.  Disaster training will continue to be a regular feature of the professional development for the whole team here at the Museum.

Today we are pleased to say we have a comprehensive disaster plan and regular staff training in place so we can be as prepared as possible for events that we truly hope never happen!

Emily Murray, May 2012