Saturday, 11 January 2020

small museums and natural disasters

Back in December, I started work on a bushfire survival plan for the old pharmacy I'm documenting.

At the time I didn't grasp, in fact I think very few people grasped the scale of the tragedy that was about to engulf the south east of Australia.

In retrospect, my plan is not the best.

My original idea was that we would grab key items, put them (carefully) in the back of a car and drive the vehicle to a place of safety. The plan would work for a small isolated grass fire, but not for the massive fires that have been raging.

I've also read a number of plans and planning documents by a number of museum professionals since then. They're all deficient, as applied to small museums run by volunteers.


  • in the face of a major bushfire emergency it is unfair and wrong to expect volunteers to devote time to saving museum contents when their own homes and loved ones may be at risk. This equally applies to salaried staff.
  • evacuating key items will not work unless you have place of safety arrangements in place in advance - the distances and amount of time involved make it impracticable to simply drive to a place of safety and wait out the emergency
So, what needs to change?

We still need to decide which items if any are to be saved. 

As soon as there is a 'watch and act' alert - I'm using the Victorian terms here - items need to be packed and taken somewhere. Given that 'watch and act' alerts have a reasonable amount of leeway built in there should be time to do this, and also allow staff and volunteers to return to look after their own homes.

The 'somewhere' is also important - we need to know in advance where the items are going - preferably some storage location in a local museum or art galley in a town though by the fire authorities to be defensible, and that needs a prior agreement.

There also has to be an understanding that situations may change rapidly, so people (a) need to know in advance what they might have to do and (b) there needs to be backup so if one volunteer has to bail out to evacuate their own home, someone else can provide cover.

All much more complicated, and possibly, in the case of a museum or historic house reliant on volunteers, impracticable.

Which of course highlights the need for excellent record keeping and cataloguing, and where possible, digitisation. They are after all just things, and while their loss may be irreplacable, knowing what has been lost, means that we can reconstruct things, albeit digitally.

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