Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US. 

Flooding in the subway at 86th Street

There is understandably meaningful symbolism in having an underground museum at the World Trade Center site. However, it is generally uncommon to have a museum underground, and I can guarantee that at least a few of the people involved in the creation and construction of the 9/11 Memorial Museum expressed some scruples about this decision. Even out here in Colorado, where we are considerably safer from major flooding in comparison to a coastal area, we don’t like the idea of putting anything other than museum offices in a basement. I’ve worked in a couple places where objects were stored in a basement– and one major museum where over half the exhibition space was underground– and trust me, the collections managers/registrars/curators absolutely hated it. Even at ground-level, works are ideally kept at least 6 inches off the ground in case of random flash flooding from a bad rainstorm. If the 9/11 Memorial Museum had been up and running, I guarantee that a significant portion of the objects in the main exhibition space would have suffered some water damage from Sandy, as most objects both large and small are not usually placed above 60 inches.

A lot of older museums tend to have their storage in the basement, most of all because it is out of the way of valuable above-ground exhibition space. Our museum-forefathers were more concerned with creating a well lit, aesthetically pleasing exhibition space than with the safe, rational storage of objects. The same can be said for galleries, as evidenced by the above article about flooding in Chelsea. Yet storage is, in some ways, more important in a museum setting than the exhibition space because the vast majority of a museum’s holdings are in storage. At the Denver Art Museum, for example, only 8% of the collection is on display. However, there is already a major plight in museum collections: decades of poor collections management policies means that many museums have too much stuff. Deaccessioning is a complex but increasingly common practice of purging a collection of objects that no longer reflect the trajectory of the museum’s mission. Yet it must be conceded that not all museums have a collection, such as children’s museums. Some would argue that information is what defines a museum, not what it contains. I read a 2004 article by Simon Knell called “Altered values: searching for a new collecting,” in which he argued the object is more or less obsolete in comparison to intangible information. I naturally do not agree with this view in the slightest; while some museums may be more about information and its conveyance, if a museum has a collection, one of its primary duties will ALWAYS be the collection’s preservation.

A projection of the effect of rising sea levels in San Francisco

As I read more about the damage caused by Sandy, my line of thinking got increasingly apocalyptic. Flooding is going to become increasingly common as the oceans rise. I heard a story on NPR today that Manhattan may start considering putting up a flood wall, but if the projection on the right is even slightly possible, that flood wall won’t do much good for protecting buildings in NYC from significant flooding/complete inundation. And not just New York– the ENTIRETY of East and West Coasts in America, staggering portions of Europe and South America, etc. Just look up a map (like the one at the bottom of this page): if things keep going the way that they are, our planet will be unrecognizable and largely uninhabitable in the next couple hundred years, and not just because of land loss. However, rather than go off on a tangent about saving the environment, I want to turn my attention back to the plight of museum collections in the face of climate change. I am keeping my scope narrow and looking particularly at museums in America, as my knowledge of museums elsewhere in the world is considerably less informed.

As I stated earlier, a lot of major museums in America are in areas vulnerable to flooding and rising ocean levels: the Met, the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, the Dali, SFMOMA… Granted, these are not the only museums in existence (they really make up a tiny, TINY fraction of all the museums out there), but they are some of the most well-recognized. All accredited museums have some sort of disaster plan in place: what to do in case of a fire, tornado, earthquake, flood, etc. However, for museums in areas vulnerable to inundation from rising sea levels, I would love to know what their contingency plans are. Would they move everything to a new location at a higher elevation? Would they hope that a flood wall would save them? If a museum were to relocate (which I can tell you takes a couple years in addition to years of planning), what would they do to satisfy people’s need for culture and learning in the meantime?Worst of all– what if entire museums are lost?

An example of an online museum collection

This week in my Intro to Museum Studies class, we were reading about technology in museums. We covered a variety of technologies, such as collections databases, interactive elements in exhibitions, online collections, and “eMuseums.” Naturally, I was attracted to online collections (and eMuseums, for that matter). There is a lot of concern on the part of museums in putting an image of an object online, as there is risk that the image will be improperly used or that people will simply not go to the museum if they feel like they have gotten their fill digitally. However, I don’t think a digital representation of an object will ever replace the experience of actually seeing an object, and in fact, studies have been done that show online collections can actually increase the desire to go to the museum. Thus, digital museums and collections can actually enrich the learning experience of the real thing. At the same time, I began thinking more about the preservation aspect of digitizing museums and collections. If the aforementioned disastrous scenarios come to fruition, would an eMuseum become a likely substitute for a real one while it works to build a new location? What if a mere record is all that is left of an object if the worst comes to pass?

We are already seeing an increase in the digitization of museums and their collections, and I think we may see even more in the coming years. While this may already be a “natural” evolution as people become increasingly dependent on the Internet for information, I think there is more to it than just jumping on the techie-bandwagon. Digital collections and eMuseums may end up being a primary way of preserving a record something that may one day be lost. There are already plenty of instances in which photographs or copies of paintings/sculptures/prints are all that remains of an original. Putting similar records online are just a bigger step towards mass appreciation.

Nevertheless, we should really get on doing something about climate change so that these apocalyptic scenarios don’t come to pass.


One thought on “Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

  1. Pingback: This Week « Bricks + Mortar

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