Tuesday, 10 February 2015




Artefacts? In danger, you say? Be still my heart!

It is the worst nightmare of a museum professional to be faced with an emergency that threatens the safety of artefacts. This became a reality for approximately 200 museum staff who were left scrambling during a fire at the Musée de la Civilisation in Québec City, Québec last year. An inferno broke out on the museum’s roof during construction in the early afternoon of Monday, September 15, 2014. Thankfully, the blaze did not result in total tragedy, largely due to the quick thinking of certain employees of the institution.

Smoke billowing from the four-alarm blaze at the Musée de la Civilisation. Source.

This prompted me to wonder how one could craft the best plan possible to protect endangered artefacts. Preparation is instrumental to success, so let me provide you with some tips that will help you to be more prepared if something unexpected happens during your professional career.

1. Don’t Panic
 The artefacts aren’t going anywhere and neither are you because you’re probably frozen in place. Breathe. Keep a cool head.

That's the spirit! Source.

2. Personal Danger
 Please, if you are in immediate danger from whatever is occurring, get out of there! Your well-being and safety is critical.

3. Teamwork
 If you aren’t alone, capitalize on the extra hands and minds available to you by explaining plans as you make them to others so that they can help. On the other hand, even if you’re alone, you can still make a difference.

4. Prioritize
 Take a quick inventory of the objects around you. Rank them in terms of likelihood that they will be damaged.


5. Evaluate
 What are your options? What materials do you have at your disposal that can be easily and quickly accessed to protect the most vulnerable artefacts in your vicinity? Can any of the artefacts be moved quickly and efficiently without causing more damage than the emergency could?

6. Act
 Remember how you just ranked the artefacts closest to you? Start by doing what you can to provide protection for the object facing the greatest risk and then working through your list. What you can reasonably achieve will depend on the time you think you have and the specifics of the emergency.


Here are some emergency scenarios and suggestions:

a) potential water damage / flooding
- cover objects with waterproof material
- move objects to higher ground (shelf, platform, table)

b) fire
- cover objects with any kind of protective material
- close doors between the objects and the fire
- do not open any windows
- move textiles and wood objects out of danger if possible

c) vibration
- cushion objects with soft material
- remove objects from glass cases
- remove objects hanging from walls or suspended from ceilings if possible

d) climate changes
- move objects into a climate-controlled environment
- turn on a dehumidifier
- turn on air conditioning

7. Leave!
 Be reasonable in terms of how much you can accomplish in the time you may have and keep a close eye on the status of the emergency. As soon as it escalates, leave. Also, if you are being asked to evacuate, don’t continue what you are doing – exit as quickly as possible.

Try to exit quickly and calmly, unlike what is suggested by this sign. Source.

Other more recent headlines demonstrate that dangerous emergencies can happen when you least expect them and for many different reasons, which you must try to anticipate. It is often best to have an excellent emergency preparedness plan in place for your museum before disaster strikes and, if you can, to alter your building to be as well-equipped as possible to face an emergency - take British Columbia's Audain Art Museum and its excellent preventive measures for example. The AAM will sport seismic energy absorbers developed at the University of Toronto that will protect the building in the event of an earthquake, a more frequent occurrence in British Columbia due to a nearby fault line in the Earth's crust.

Seismic energy absorbers. Source.

Best of luck and stay safe!


  1. This is great, Madeline! And it reminds me of a project some of your colleagues did for Interpretation and Meaning Making during Fall 2014 - an interactive video game about the fire at University College in 1890 (one of the levels in the game asked participants to decide what objects to save from the library).

    1. Thank you for your comment and for your connection to MSL2330, Professor! I will have to ask around for more details about that video game, it sounds fascinating.