How Museums Are Leading the Way in Natural Disaster Preparation & Management

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Scholars still mourn the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, burned to the ground by Julius Caesar’s forces in 48 BC. Up to half a million scrolls were incinerated, including works by Homer, Plato, and Socrates.  Some historians believe the loss of scientific research, cultural, and historical knowledge at Alexandria set human civilization back as many as 1,000 years.

It’s important, therefore, to do everything we can to protect our cultural institutions. While it’s unlikely a modern-day Julius Caesar is going to pillage and burn his way through the Guggenheim any time soon, we are now facing a force even more formidable and destructive than the legions of Rome: climate change. 

In recent years natural disasters have been more frequent and more severe. In 2018, the U.S. suffered 14 disasters that cost the economy over $1 billion each, with the total annual cost estimated at $91 billion. Natural disasters in the last three years are more than double the long-term average.

Confronting these issues head-on seems to have come naturally to the art world. The Climate Museum, established in 2015 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, became the first museum in the U.S. solely dedicated to the climate crisis, and museums are increasingly working to go green. Last year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) joined forces with The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to replace incandescent bulbs of Chris Burden’s sculpture Urban Light with L, which will prevent five million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions within the next decade.

Perhaps this makes it unsurprising that museums and galleries are way ahead of the pack when it comes to establishing weather-resistant institutions. Here are some of the ways they are future-proofing themselves against the impacts of climate change and the disaster management techniques that are being employed.


One of California’s most headline-grabbing fires of 2019 was the Getty Fire, named after The Getty Center – the self-proclaimed safest place for art during a fire.  As Vice reports, when the flames came within a mile of The Getty Center, the staff didn’t flinch and resting firefighters were accommodated in the on-site café.

Some of the fire-fighting measures implemented by a range of conscientious museums like The Getty Center include:

Fire-resistant Architecture – The Getty Center’s walls are made of stone, concrete, and protected steel, which are highly fire-resistant. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is undergoing major renovations including humidity control and fire prevention. Fire-resistant Landscaping – The Getty Center planted drought-resistant plants and trees close to the buildings that are fire-resistant and retain water. These plants are regularly pruned to prevent them from becoming additional fire fuel. The garden is regularly watered and surrounded by an irrigation system that can be used to shield the center from a fire. Goats –  As a preventative measure, the Ronald Reagan Library enlisted the help of a herd of goats earlier this year to munch up the flammable scrub surrounding the complex.

Art First-aid – The Foundation for Advancement in Conservation trains museum staff to clean damaged works and how to triage through soot removal, mold prevention, and dye bleeding stoppage. Many works are salvageable if immediate steps are taken to limit the damage. Jessica Unger, emergency programs coordinator at the Foundation, likened it to an “ambulance getting onsite to help stabilize [art] collections that are saved for later surgery.” The Chicago-based Conversation Center provides a similar service, offering a 24-hour disaster response team to salvage works of art. During Hurricane Sandy, they triaged and attempted to repair over 2,000 works of art.

Prioritization – Not all institutions have the funding to invest in sophisticated disaster plans or the redesigning of buildings. The Rubin, for example, invested most of its budget in staff training and education. Saving the most important works of art might simply depend on staff knowing which pieces to prioritize. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art s this mentality. Chief Curator Eik Kahng said, “Staff are aware of the most highly valued works of art in the collection and know which to move first out of harm’s way.”

A severe seismic event can easily destroy an art collection if protective measures aren’t implemented. Conducting comprehensive structural assessments can highlight the most vulnerable areas in a museum and allow for precious pieces to be moved to a safer location. Many museums in areas prone to earthquakes are preparing their collections for potential impact: 

Isolation Technology: The Getty has implemented seismic isolator technology that safely stabilizes vulnerable artworks by isolating them from the ground’s movement. Sculptures are bolted to a base, which consists of frames that slide on rollers to absorb and diffuse the earth’s movement.
Fortification: The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida protects its collection with fortified glass and 18-inch-thick walls that can withstand a Category 5 storm.
Putty Usage: Institutions also make use of museum putty (sometimes known as earthquake putty), a blended rubber material that can secure items such as statues and antiques without inflicting any damage, reducing the risk of artifacts tipping and being jostled.

Flooding has dramatically impacted the art world in recent years. Scientists predict that Miami will be underwater before the end of the century. So it’s unsurprising that The Bass Museum in Miami Beach has re-thought its art collection, choosing not to purchase pieces such as humidity sensitive watercolors. In 2017 the Louvre flooded and two pieces by Nicholas Poussin were damaged. The University of Iowa Museum has been unable to secure insurance since its collection was evacuated in 2008 following a flood.

In light of these losses and impacts, other museums are considering preventative measures to limit water impacts in the event of severe weather: 

Floodgate Installation: The Smithsonian Institution has been investigating what can be done to protect institutions that are at risk of flooding, while some museums are taking matters into their own hands. The National Museum for African American History and Culture installed a $300,000 floodgate with a built-in flotation device, which means the gate rises with the water level.
Flood Doors: The Whitney invested $12 million in re-evaluating and redesigning its entire site mid-construction following Superstorm Sandy. The museum is now waterproof up to 16.5 feet and its flood door can withstand the force of a floating semi-truck.

Image Credit: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

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