Monday, 10 June 2013

"Stuff matters": The crucial work of the American Institute for Conservation - Collections Emergency Response Team

An interview with Eric Pourchot, Institutional Advancement Director at the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation

Why was the American Institute for Conservation - Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) established?

It came out of the experience we had after Hurricane Katrina as many of our members from AIC had served on teams that went down to the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area to help cultural institutions recover as best they could from that disaster. They realised that there were a lot of good intentions and well-meaning people that came from a different background and had different training, and therefore it didn’t work as efficiently, as smoothly or as safely as it could have. Also people, including the participants, didn’t know how FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other emergency management systems worked and how they fit into the bigger relief effort as of course people had little way of communicating with each other with the phone lines being down.
It really came of the feeling we can do better, so we created a grant proposal for the IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) a federal agency that would train 60 people (3 groups of 20) across the USA and it would combine conservators, curators, librarians, archivists - people who could bring a lot of different skills and knowledge depending on what kind of collection was at risk.  Everyone would go through the same training and learn about health and safety issues, how to work as a team and how to work with the response agencies. 63 people were trained in the first round and then another grant in 2011 expanded it to a group of 107. It wasn’t the number of people that needed to be increased but we needed people spread across the country so that we were within close vicinity of a disaster’s location, had someone who could drive and not need a flight or rental car. The main calls we were getting were from smaller historic museums that had a wide range of materials - decorative arts, wooden artefacts, architectural issues - and we needed more expertise in those areas. So when we selected people the second time round, it was 2/3 conservators and about 1/3 other professionals. We learnt from a situation in which we had a call from Minot, ND which is closer to Canada and people who responded were 10-12 hours away. 

What is the most recent event the team has to respond to?

Well, the short answer to that is Hurricane Sandy in New York which was huge effort and unusual for us in that it involved private artists and galleries as well as public institutions, our mission is to serve the public collections but it was clear that in New York we’d be losing an incredible amount of artwork and cultural artefacts if we didn’t include them.

We knew what the possible track of the hurricane was going to be and we were able to send out press releases and reach the regional art and history organisations saying “If you need us, here is how to contact us” and there is a 24 hour hotline people can call that the volunteers staff. I don’t think anyone knew how devastating this was going to be and even the museums there who had been affected by Hurricane Irene little over a year before didn’t know it would be significantly worse. The Noguchi Museum for example had gotten through Irene with no problem but the flooding from Sandy was so high water was coming in through exhaust vents and people had sand bags and raised things up on tables but a 3 foot storm surge comes through and knocks out the windows, lifts the tables, topples book cases and some of the basement storage areas not only flooded but the strength of the water was enough to smash doors in. It was hard for people to realise the power of moving water as opposed to dripping water.

The team is still indirectly responding to the disaster by taking calls and we had people on site for 3 weeks after the devastation then we set up a facility in Brooklyn, a cultural recovery centre that we ran for 3 months, where people could bring items that they had pulled out of the basements and the studios. We cleaned them, decontaminated them, mended them, did surface cleanings and stored them safely until a full treatment could be done. While Sandy was happening we had a fire in Massachusetts and a fire in Oklahoma that effected collections and we sent people out in January and February to help with those, typically one or two people for a few days.

What plan of action is put in place by the team when major disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti strike?

The planning is very difficult as we have a very small budget for on-going maintenance of the team. We do have a coordinator, Beth Antoine, who is a conservator in New Orleans and she has a very small stipend to keep the teams together and to communicate with them to make sure people can get to small events whilst also manning the phone lines each month.

When we get to a big disaster like Haiti or Sandy and even Irene, we usually have to ramp up a bit and that means finding funding and if it is a domestic disaster that is effecting public institutions, typically there is some public money we can tap in to. After New York we basically started from nothing, we had already spent our year’s budget by the end of October and fortunately we were able to tap into some funds from Sotheby’s and other corporate funders and hire people on the ground in New York to coordinate volunteers. In New York we had 23 AIC-CERT members who volunteered but there were 80 other people, mostly conservators, who also volunteered and worked very hard.

In Haiti, another situation we weren’t prepared for, the need for help was so strong the Smithsonian was able to take a lead role in that response and they asked AIC-CERT to find volunteers to help with their efforts, mainly those who conserved artwork. We were led by Stephanie Hornbeck who was hired to direct the Smithsonian’s response. It started very rough – people were using pipes for hammers, credenzas for weights and you did whatever you could with what you had. Gradually we were able to get more supplies and equipment and establish a pretty good triage centre, not a full conservation laboratory, but at least something to provide people with the supplies they needed. It also involved a lot of training, mostly of Haitian artists who learned how to clean, care and mend the paintings.

Are there any particular artefacts of cultural significance or note that have been rescued by the team?

The really short answer is they are all significant – you go into a small museum in Iowa and it’s flooded, those collections may not have iconic status but for the community they are very important. These objects tell the story of their region. We work very closely with the owners of the collections to figure out what is critical and what can be replaced. In public libraries it is often cheaper to replace the fiction if the books are still on sale. Identifying what is important to tell their story is what our people are trained to do – a librarian can talk to a librarian, an archivist can talk to an archivist.

People are in shock as often what we go into is not just a burst pipe, but a flood that means their home and their spouse’s place of work is under water. In hurricanes you may not even know where all your
co-workers are as communication is very difficult. A workshop at this meeting [41st American Institute for Conservation Annual Meeting] was on psychological issues in disaster recovery and how you help people deal with the stress and make quick decisions.

In Haiti, some of the most significant collections were in private galleries and they don’t have the same public/private divisions. Iconic paintings were crushed under the rubble and had to be pulled back out. It was part of their heritage and what they needed as a country to survive. One of the surprising items rescued in a historical society in Iowa was a very large painting that had come off the wall and was down on the floor, we’d been walking on it so we then recovered it, restored it and returned it to the collection.

In New York we worked with at least 19 artists in the cultural recovery centre who brought their things in and explained what their needs were, sometimes it was just “I need space because I’ve filled every inch in my apartment and I can’t put them back in the basement as it’s not open to public access”. There was the Martha Graham company collection, props and costumes that date back forty years and are still being used, the Smithsonian was very interested in helping them as they knew these were iconic items that meant something to the country not just the dance company.

Why in times of crisis is it important to rescue our cultural heritage?
In Haiti, a lot of volunteers would go over on flights and there’d be doctors, nurses and engineers and the volunteers asked themselves ‘What am I doing, why am I taking up space?’. There are quotes from the Haitian communities saying they can build houses but heritage is what makes it worth all the effort and it makes their lives have meaning.
AIC-CERT isn’t going to be the first ones there, and we shouldn’t be, the health and safety of people and the structural integrity of buildings has to come first but there is a real need to help these communities to recover and continue. It is quality of life versus quantity of life - you could just tear everything down, put up pre-fab buildings and call it a city but that’s not how cities are formed. We are drawn to places, we are drawn to things, it is what gives us identity and I’m honoured to be working with people who have devoted their lives to the concept that “stuff matters”.

>> Read the blog 'Rescuing Haitian Paintings'

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