Monday, July 28, 2014

Update: Disaster Plans for People

I wanted to update my last post about disaster plans for people as I've had great emails, great comments here, and great conversation threads on both ICOM and AAM LinkedIn groups.  All you stimulated additional thinking and clarity on my part, helping to shape my upcoming presentation.  Here's a bit of how my thinking has evolved, thanks to you.

Definitions:  Crisis or disaster?  Most often it appears, we take disaster to mean a natural disaster and there were many responses related to that.  There are also, however, what Cathy Stanton thoughtfully called in her comment "slow emergencies (with a nod to James Kunstler's "long emergency"). Coincidentally, Gretchen Jennings wrote about museums' role in the United States' current national crisis of the influx of young, undocumented children crossing the border.  I now think crisis is a better term for my intentions.  Definitions #2:  People or our people?  Several commenters took my emphasis on people to mean disaster plans that include plans for how people should act during a crisis at a museum such as evacuation during a fire.  Lots of museums have that.  It appears that community is a clearer, broader term for my intended group.

Planning:  Lots of commenters mentioned traditional disaster plans but several of you mentioned that this kind of active community engagement should be embedded in a museum's DNA: in their mission, in their planning processes, in every aspect of our work. Several of you reminded us of the importance of networking with all other elements of our community in thinking about how we can be of help. Then it's easy to respond.  A plan might not be flexible enough, as disasters or crises are hard to predict, but, as Sally Yerkovich wrote in a Linkedin comment,
If a museum truly thinks about the needs of its community on an ongoing basis, a response might come naturally. For example, in NYC on 9/11 some museums like the Tenement Museum that remained opened welcomed people fleeing from lower Manhattan. In nearby Newark, the Historical Society opened its doors and provided coffee, a place to gather, watch TV and be with others. Both institutions saw themselves as part of the social fabric of their neighborhood and, thus, immediately considered the needs of their neighbors. Would a plan have helped here?
And interestingly, in one email, a colleague took some museums to task, "I was very annoyed at that response 'we have no time for that.' That museum deserves the same response from its community when the museum is in need. "  

Inspiring Examples:  Many of you shared great, inspiring examples from around the world, ranging from the simple act of offering space or a hot lunch to the much more complex.

Katie Boardman shared this from Tom Reitz in Waterloo, Ontario:
The Museum has been listed as a cooling centre in the past ... which means that if the temperature soars during the summer, and people in the community need a place to go that's cool because they don't have air conditioning, they can come to the museum during our regular business hours - the museum has air conditioning. This isn't built into our emergency plan - but now that I think about it, maybe it should.
An anonymous Vermonter wrote,
The museum's visitor center acted as a makeshift shelter for some residents who were stranded from their homes due to flooded roads. I was away the weekend that the flooding happened and could not return until three weeks later because of closed roads. When I did return, I could not believe the devastation in the community. The museum was fine but the people were not. The director had attended local community meetings with Red Cross and National Guard officials and the community had come together with the museum as the hub.
Lise Summers from Western Australia alerted me to the quite amazing Tsunami Debris History Project of the British Columbia Maritime Museum, aimed at linking personal belongings that have made their way across the Pacific with their owners--and I'll be tracking down similar efforts in Japan that she mentioned.  Bronwyn Grant from New Zealand shared the various ways in which Christchurch museums were working with their communities as they recover from earthquakes in 2010 and 2011: this ranges from getting art out into public places, serving as Civil Defence headquarters, and starting a Quake Story Museum.

And about those long emergencies, what are we doing?  These responses were fewer, although of course I've seen science museums addressing the issue of climate change.  How can we engage our communities in thinking about long term social change and justice?  What kinds of authority do we have and what kinds are we willing, as institutions, to surrender?  Keep your great comments and observations coming and thanks to all who've already contributed to the conversation.

Images:  Top:  motorcycle washed ashore in Canada from Tsunami Debris History Project; center: Vermont flooding.

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