Disaster planning under strain

Museums and heritage bodies are reassessing their emergency plans following this winter’s severe floods
Patrick Steel
The floods that hit the UK recently were so severe that even careful disaster planning could not prevent damage to museum buildings and, in some cases, objects.

The big question for museums in affected areas, says John Roles, the director of Leeds Museums and Galleries, is whether it will be a once-in-a-century event, or become commonplace.

Emergency planning meant that only objects that could cope with being submerged were on the ground floor of Leeds Industrial Museum, one of nine venues managed by Leeds Museums and Galleries. But with flood water up to eight feet high, the highest level since 1866, “there wasn’t a lot that anyone could do but wait for the waters to subside and then try and tackle the aftermath”, says Roles.

It was a similar story at Lancaster Maritime Museum, where the flood waters reached two feet high. The museum’s emergency plan puts personal safety first, so staff were limited to assessing the damage and were only able to move any object near the water to safety. Power networks were down for 48 hours following the flood.

One object from the collection, a rag rug, was damaged and is now with the conservation team. The museum shop was also flooded and will need to be refitted. The museum is now revisiting its emergency plan, says a spokeswoman, because the level of flooding was unprecedented.

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, in Cumbria, escaped the worst of the weather after learning from similar events in 2005, 2006 and 2009, says director Andrew Mackay. When the power went down during the recent floods, the museum had a back-up generator powering its lights and alarms. There are some things that are beyond the scope of a museum’s emergency plan though, with several staff who lived locally made homeless by the floods.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) was affected by leaks and minor flooding, but emergency procedures meant that collections were not affected and there was no significant damage to the buildings. Twam suffered badly in 2012, when a month’s worth of rain fell in the space of a few hours. Following this, it revisited its disaster plan and introduced compulsory emergency response training for all staff and special emergency equipment bins at each venue.

In Scotland, Aberdeenshire was particularly badly hit by the floods. National Trust for Scotland (NTS) properties Drum Castle and Mar Lodge Estate suffered damage, with the former temporarily closed last month.

The NTS is in the middle of a £155,000 project to improve its emergency planning, says the organisation’s assistant director for the south, Nat Edwards. The NTS is training more than 200 key staff, as well as creating information leaflets with emergency instructions for employees.

Edwards’ advice to any museum, gallery or heritage site that is thinking of drawing up an emergency plan is not to wait. If you don’t have a plan then write one, he says, but remember that it is only useful when the people that will be carrying it out are confident enough to use it.

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