Flooding causes extensive and costly damage to Yorkshire heritage sites

Felicity Heywood, Issue 107/8, p5, August 2007
The flood disaster in Yorkshire severely affected Rotherham Museums Service, Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield and Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, and Beck Isle Museum of Rural Life in Pickering.

Rotherham Museums Service suffered major damage to its collections held in store. Of the 64,000 social and natural items in its permanent collection in its town store, it is estimated that 20,000 of them were underwater (possibly in sewage) and have been damaged, some irreparably.

At Kelham Island Museum the displays, interactive areas, and conservation workshop equipment were destroyed. The heavy equipment was salvageable, and the smaller objects on the upper floors were largely unaffected. But Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust's social history collections store, based at Kelham, was hit hard.

On 25 June, the River Don in Sheffield burst its banks with little warning to staff before it reached a floodline of five metres above the expected level for that time of year. The staff at Kelham Island Museum evacuated 80 schoolchildren and managed to push one of Sheffield's famous Simplex cars up a ramp before the museum was flooded.

The power of the water was so great that the retaining wall of Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust's social history collection store was demolished. Weston Park and the Millennium Galleries experienced only minor water damage.

Mark Hilton, the director of finance and resources at Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, told Museums Journal that 25 staff were able to enter the day after the floods to start removing objects. He estimated that 12,000 of the 20,000 items in store were most at risk including oil paintings and prints charting the development of Sheffield. The extent of the damage is currently being assessed.

Hilton said: 'Our biggest concern is our relationship with the people of Sheffield who have donated items in store. We are wary how they might react [if items have to be written off].'

John Hamshere, the executive director at Kelham Island Museum, said: 'This is a story of complete devastation. It is dispiriting to see 13 years of work disappear in half an hour.'

Ironically, when the floods hit, Hamshere was offsite updating the risk register. He said there had been several offers of external support including Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Yorkshire and the regional Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Of the staff he said: 'We started with the Dunkirk spirit and it's been up and down each day.'

Frances Yeo, the senior officer of collections at Rotherham Museums Service, said that although the museum had a disaster plan it is never foolproof: 'Contingency plans don't cover what to do if the staff can't get into the museum because of water levels.' She added that the plans don't cover how to deal with reactions from staff: 'Some want to get in there; others find it very upsetting,' she said.

Yeo warned that disaster planning for the region must be revised as it could happen again: 'This is not just a freak of nature.'

Yorkshire Medium Museum Services, a group of 11 museums who are not part of the Yorkshire hub, are supporting a regional conference organised by HLF Yorkshire. It will be held on 15 August to look at the devastation across the Yorkshire cultural landscape.