Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Museums Need Disaster Plans for People?

Any museum worth its salt has a disaster plan somewhere (hopefully somewhere easy to find).  It probably has information about contacting emergency services;  what happens to objects in collections storage and the safe evacuation of staff and visitors.  But over the last year, I've been paying attention to a number of conversations, in person and in the online world, about the ways we, as museums, can be more responsive to community needs in times of disaster.

I watched my colleagues in Ukraine step up during the protests on Maidan and the country's ongoing changes;  Gretchen Jennings has focused on empathetic museums in her blog Museum CommonsElaine Gurian's writings continue to inspire; my colleague and friend Rainey Tisdale curated this year's Dear Boston exhibit on the anniversary of the bombing; and David Fleming's talk on the Social Justice Alliance of Museums at AAM provided new inspiration. All evidence of a more people-focused shift for museums. But much of it seems ad hoc.  Committed folks in museums react on the fly as disasters--political, social, natural, environmental--happen.

This September, at the Museums and Politics conference in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, Russia, I'll be presenting on this topic--the idea that a museum's disaster plans should include a focus on community, not just buildings and collections.  I proposed the session not because I'm an expert, but because it's an issue I'm interested in exploring, particularly from a wide range of global perspectives.   I'm looking to hear from you with your thoughts on any of the questions below.

  • What would a disaster plan that focused on the people in a community look like?
  • Can we plan for it?  What kinds of disasters do we need to think about?
  • What resources can we provide?  emotional?  physical?  technical?  (see the bike-powered charging station at the top of this post)
  • How do we balance human access and needs with responsibility to our collection?
  • What can we provide that no other type of organization can?
  • How can we begin conversations before a disaster about community needs?
  • And for how long does our disaster assistance last?
  • How does contemporary collecting fit into this process?
  • Should our assistance and commitment be limited to local disasters?  What about ones that happen in other places around the world?  What's our responsibility?
  • If we can be of service to our community during a disaster, how might that reshape our ongoing missions?
  • And of course, what examples can you share--from anywhere?


  • Ryan Nelsen (R) and Fields Harrington (2nd R, white shirt) ride a tandem bicycle to generate power as people wait for their cell phones to recharge on Avenue C in the East Village on November 1, 2012 in New York as the city recovers from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. This neighborhood is in the area of Manhattan without any electrical power. (STAN HONDA - AFP/Getty Images)
  • Child's artwork from a event at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
  • Dear Boston exhibit image via Metro
  • Detail from Spray for Justice, on the first floor of the Museum of Liverpool, is a tribute and memorial to the people who lost their lives at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest on 15 April 1989.


Anonymous said...

I lived and worked at a museum in Vermont where the community was deeply impacted by flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011. 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.

Linda Norris said...

Thank you anonymous! I'd love to know the exact museum if you can (feel free to email me) because it's just the kind of example I'm looking for.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

I hate to rain on this altruistic parade, but, as the very involved curator of a small, nearly all volunteer museum, I have enough to do just keeping this place on track as a creditable museum. I see our direction as enriching life here through the perspective that history lends, but we have neither the personnel nor the knowledge to take on something so beyond our realm.

Marianne said...

One thought that came to mind in reading this post -- look beyond museums to see how other organizations consider this same question. For example, hospitals plan for community-wide disasters and even practice response senarios. If museums are "partners" in the life of a community it seems that these institutions should have a role when the community is in need.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks everyone, for your comments, and Marianne and Jessica, particularly for the connection to a community's disaster planning efforts.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could look at the role of the Smithsonian Institution in the response and recovery of cultural heritage in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Not only did SI recover collections damaged by the earthquake, but provided a comprehensive training program to Haitians that they will carry forward in the management of their cultural heritage now and in the future.

Anonymous said...

We often learn after a crisis what should have been done before to prevent it. If museums practiced plans with the city or other institutions, it’s possible to ensure your citizens their basic human needs in times of disasters and traumatic events. I just recently read through James Cuno’s essay ‘The Object of Art Museums’ in the book Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust and was reminded of a museums intentions with the public. He mentions the use of art during the Blitz and how the art helped the public ensure life would continue to move on. As a concern of Ginny’s (above) I believe you are still maintaining the historic state of the object, but using it for healing and hope. Collaboration is a strong force.

Linda Norris said...

Anonymous and Jasmine, thanks for providing resources for me to check out. I hadn't thought about the Blitz, but of course! This has been a fascinating conversation and I so appreciate everyone's thoughts and comments.

Jo Kelleher said...

Our small museum suffered from a massive fire 5 years ago which took 2 years to recover from. Last June, our museum and town survived a massive flood along with the rest of Southern Alberta. We opened exactly 3 months later because we wanted people returning to the stricken area to be able to recognize something that was once formerly home. We became an alternate site that fall for primary schoolchildren who had lose their school and were being temporarily sheltered in a very crowded, temporary,community hall. We have hosted music concerts since the regular facility is inoperable at this time and we have enjoyed the children visiting Santa Claus and having their photo taken among our displays. Yes,we have a disaster plan, and we have critical procedures posted in a central place. Neither of these things helped during our crises but you still have to have them for a time when you cannot think clearly or effectively. The time to prepare for an emergency is before it happens!


123Really enjoyed the post and everyone's comments. It occurs to me that it's also worth thinking about "slow disasters" (or what James Kunstler has called the "long emergency" in relation to peak oil and climate change) and to work toward seeing museums as agents of ongoing community adaptivity and collective thought in times of challenge and change more generally. I know that's a big part of your work around food, Linda, as it is with mine. I empathize with the strain on resources, but this kind of shift may ultimately bring resources into museums rather than draining them.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks everyone, for continuing to comment--there's also great conversations going on at the AAM and ICOM groups on Linkedin. Cathy, thanks particularly, for yours--I'd been thinking about "disasters" which is not the right word, I've decided, like food deserts or the current immigration issue (Gretchen Jennings has just done a post over at the Future of Museums blog on that topic) but this idea about the "long emergency" is equally important. And you're right, scarce resources are an excuse, but not one that's effective in the long run as we work to matter more to our communities. Thanks all!