Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


Salvaging Specimens

In the face of an emergency or natural disaster, what’s your first thought? Is it family, friends, your home or even your car? For many of our museum staff, who have dedicated their lives to the study of rare and precious artifacts, the safety of museum collections is a very real concern. After a flood, tornado or even a fire, how do collection managers and curators decide which artifacts to save? More importantly, how do they salvage the collections, their life’s work?

 On Oct. 16 and 17, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History staff attended a three-part Emergency Response and Salvage and Recovery workshop led by Barbara Moore, a senior professional instructor of emergency response for cultural institutions. Moore has been working in museum collection care since 2000 and has worked with dozens of museums before and after disasters to reduce damage. During the two-day workshop, our faculty and staff learned all about risk assessment and methods for stabilizing damaged collections after a disaster. 

Our staff is all ears

The workshop began bright and early Tuesday morning with a discussion for museum volunteers and staff about risk assessment and safety during emergency procedures. Prevention is key when it comes to these kinds of situations, so Moore listed several ways to reduce external and internal risks, such as trimming trees close to the building and never placing artifacts on the floor.

Moore followed up with a more in-depth discussion later that afternoon exclusively for collections and research staff. This phase of the workshop reviewed methods of stabilizing and drying damaged collections, conducting initial damage assessment, and material-specific salvage techniques. For example, paintings are of highest priority after receiving water damage and must be laid flat to dry. Textiles, however, can be frozen to prevent further erosion. 

The second day was spent with the collections and research staff focusing on one of the most difficult aspects of museum recovery, prioritization. Curatorial prioritization takes into account the most used and valuable items, while salvage prioritization considers the most vulnerable items. Both must be considered when ordering salvage efforts. Finally, to review techniques learned in the workshop, the staff was given real-life scenarios and asked to respond using their knowledge on salvage preparation, organization of the salvage operation and salvage practice. 

Moore discusses preventative measures

Of course, all of this is much easier said than done as emergencies can be emotionally taxing. According to Moore, the most common mistake museums make in salvage and recovery is “rushing in too fast without a plan or reason.” That’s why it’s all about preparation. So, how did the Sam Noble Museum measure up? According to Moore, the museum is doing a great job staying diligent and prepared for an emergency situation since her last workshop in 2007. Moore also commended the museums efforts at preventing disasters by reducing risks.

 While we never hope to be in situations like those of the Barnum or Intrepid Museum, both of which were severely damaged by natural disasters, the threat is ever-present. However, Moore provided the museum staff with more than just a plan; she left behind peace of mind.