Art at the DIAConservation

Inside the DIA Galleries
Inside the DIA Galleries

Disaster and Conservation Resources

From ancient statues to modern photography, art comes in many forms. Unfortunately, so do the disasters that threaten it. As part of our commitment to preserving art for future generations, our Conservation Division provides museums and galleries throughout the state with disaster planning and recovery assistance.

Disaster Preparedness Planning

Barbara Heller, Director and Conservator, Special Projects

Editor's Note: At the November 1989 annual meeting of the Michigan Museums Association, the author presented a session on Disaster Planning and Mitigation sponsored by the Michigan Alliance. The contents of the session as outlined and updated here are important not just to museums but to all institutions and organizations that house irreplaceable resources. The Michigan Alliance is not in any way associated with nor does it profit from any of the resources listed on this page.

Disasters need no introduction. We do not need to reach far back into our memories to remember Hurricane Hugo in North Carolina or the earthquake in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay area, the floods in the Midwest and Hurricane Georges in the Gulf Coast. Locally, the Berrien County Historical Association's 1839 Courthouse Museum was struck by lightening the summer of 1990. The Port Huron Museum had an electrical fire in 1987 that caused smoke damage. The Fort Miami Heritage Society's landmark building in St. Joseph caught fire in 1994. All of its collections needed to be relocated to two warehouses and to cold storage. The Detroit Historical Museum had an outbreak of mold in storage when their climate control system failed in 1995. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village experienced an electrical fire in 1997 in the basement of an historical structure. A spring 2000 fire destroyed the Father Marquette National Memorial and Museum located in Straits State Park, St. Ignace. Lightning is among the possible causes of the fire Good preventative maintenance on heating and cooling systems and checking for frayed wires and rusty outlets can prevent man made disasters. However natural disasters give no warning and can not be prevented.

The purpose of a disaster preparedness plan is to prevent or reduce harm to people, buildings, and collections in the event of catastrophic events. The plan should include the evacuation of people and possibly collections, the stabilization of the building and its environment, and remedial care of the collections. First, you should involve a variety of staff and, if necessary, consultants, in the development of your plan. Determine what types of disasters may occur, then develop scenarios of mock disasters. Some events have equal probability for every institution, while others are specific to geographic location. Work out your response, detailing all steps and personnel you envision will be involved for each type of emergency, and repeat this exercise for each probable disaster. This plan should be tailored to an institution's size, physical facility, and personnel.

Disaster Considerations

The following three items are considered paramount in the museum field and should be incorporated into your Disaster Plan:

  • People are more important than objects.
  • Loan objects are priorities for evacuation.
  • After a disaster, it is better to do nothing than to treat objects yourself. Obtain professional advice first.

Disaster Checklists

The following checklist is based on the book, "Planning for Emergencies: A Guide for Museums," by T. Solley, J. Williams, and L. Baden, published by the American Association of Museums, 1987. The following items should be addressed and incorporated into your disaster preparedness plan.

What is the chain of command?

  • Who is in charge of development of a plan?
  • Who is in charge of implementation?
  • Who is the Duty Officer?
  • Who will call the police, evacuate public and staff, etc.? If that person is not there, who is the backup?
  • Do you have an organizational chart and/or functional chart?

What type of disaster is possible? And how would you detect a disaster?

  • Tornado?
  • Insects?
  • Chemical spill?
  • Fire?
  • Bomb threat?
  • Flood?
  • Smoke?
  • Water leak?
  • Vandalism?
  • Energy loss?
  • Energy cutback?
  • Power failure?

Where do you keep a list of emergency phone numbers?

And has each been contacted about your plans?

  • Fire department?
  • Hospitals?
  • Plumbers?
  • Electrician?
  • Police?
  • Engineers?
  • Conservation laboratories?
  • Who knows CPR?

Develop a priority list for objects to be saved.

  • Where will they be relocated?
  • Who has access to these areas?
  • Do you have a computerized collection management system?
    • If so do you retain a computerized back-up collection records off site?
    • If not computerized, do you have a duplicate set of records, photographs, etc.?
    • If so, are they available within 24 hours notice?
  • Do your floor plans show emergency exits and evacuations routes?
  • Where do you keep emergency supplies and equipment?
  • Do you have a written emergency manual?
    • If so, has every member of the staff read it?
  • When was the last time the staff was trained in emergency measures?
  • Is your insurance up to date?
  • Does all staff know how to handle objects in the event of an emergency?
  • How will you maintain security during a disaster?

Inform and educate your staff

  • Where copies of emergency manual are kept
  • Duty roster and assignment, backup, chain of command.
  • Where telephone numbers are kept.
  • Location of exit routes for evacuation.
  • Fire extinguishers and their uses.
  • Location of utility shut off valves.
  • First aid supplies
  • CPR training

Tests to ensure preparedness

  • Designate emergency preparedness week to review, update and test plan.
  • Appoint someone to keep the duty roster updated.
  • Test alarms, sprinklers as recommended by manufacturers, and make sure they are maintained.
  • Inventory emergency supplies and reorder and replace as necessary.

In conclusion, an effective Disaster Plan outlines prevention, preparedness, response and recovery activities. Additional information on the contents of a Disaster Plan can be accessed through and


Keep track of upcoming events, classes, exhibitions and more.

Search Art at the DIA

Advanced Search

Staff Picks

See favorite works from DIA staff members.

Support the DIA

Your membership and donations are critical to the museum’s success.

Give a Membership

Stay in the know

Receive ongoing updates about events, announcements, and more from the DIA.