In preparing for disasters, museums face tough choices
IIt’s 3 a.m.. You are a gallery director and you have woken up by the phone call you dread. Your gallery is on fire. Each of its rooms contains ten works of art. Each work is worth millions, perhaps tens of millions. From the moment a fire alarm sounds, you have “a few minutes,” says William Knatchbull, Heritage Planning Officer at the London Fire Brigade, to get your artifacts out. Ideally, you would save them all. But you can’t: the fire burns, the temperature rises and the clock is ticking. It’s time to choose.
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This is the world of “entry lists”, although not everyone calls them that. The Louvre in Paris prefers more thoughtful “priority lists”; others call them “recovery lists” or “removal lists”. The Natural History Museum in London calls the whole process “rescue planning”. But whatever term an organization uses, it comes down to the same thing. These are the lists of possessions that – when the fire starts to burn, the flood waters rise, or the terrorist bomb explodes – will be saved first. These are lists of last resort; lists that all museums hope they will never have to use.
And they’re surprisingly short. A gallery or museum can contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of objects (the British Museum is “at least” 8m). Entry lists are ideally “ten, 20 items,” Knatchbull explains; more in a larger gallery, perhaps, but not much more. Ten items out of millions, worth billions of pounds, to save in minutes. Think of shopping lists as a version of “Supermarket Sweep,” a game show where competitors rush to fill a cart, but for high culture and much higher stakes.
Whatever name the Conservatives give to these lists, they do not like to talk about them. Museums strive to present themselves as majestic and endless. The “entry lists” seem hasty and chaotic. The Louvre, which still has 14 firefighters on duty, is exceptionally open. She not only acknowledges having them, but confirms that each of her departments – paintings, sculptures, Egyptian antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, Islamic art and the rest – chooses its own list. The items there are then classified again, from “major works” (save first) to lower priorities. The Louvre won’t say what’s in each category, but it’s a safe bet that the “Mona Lisa” and the Venus de Milo would be among the first treasures to be saved.
Deciding what to put on a list, says Mr Knatchbull, sounding like a man who has witnessed a few gaiters, is “a really tough decision.” In the same museum, you can have several heads of collections, “all saying that their objects are just as important as the others”. These are not the kinds of arguments the Conservatives are used to. Questions of artistic merit are usually slow discussions without a fixed conclusion: art teachers can spend decades delicately at odds over the relative merits of Manet and Degas. Fires, however, burn quickly and end, permanently, in ashes.
While some Conservatives bicker, other places refuse to accept that such lists are necessary. The Washington Smithsonian says it “would not review items and decide what is worth saving after a disaster” since “our buildings are secure.” This kind of trust is risky.
Under dark November skies, the fire alarm starts ringing at Ham House (pictured below), a 17th-century country heap in Richmond, south London, owned by the National Trust, a charity for the conversation. The parakeets disperse in alarm. The massive doors of the estate open. A few minutes later, fire trucks appear, crushing the gravel en masse. The pace is calm, not panicked; it is simply a lifesaving practice. But it is serious. At the sound of the alarm, the agents direct the firefighters towards the objects to be rescued: climb nine steps here, turn left, and voila. The pipes slide and whistle on the slabs.
“Each National Trust property will have a priority list,” says Hannah Mawdsley, the curator in charge of this rehearsal. After all, staff at historic buildings saw the fires at Notre Dame Cathedral, Windsor Castle, and Clandon Park, a Palladian mansion in Surrey. Tom Conlon, commander of the fire station leading the exercise, is skeptical that some buildings are safe. “Everything is on fire,” he said darkly.
The weight of history
But beyond overconfidence, museums have a good reason to be reluctant about shopping lists: they are obnoxious. “How do you choose between your children? »Says Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Just as parents can surreptitiously have their favorite offspring, museums have favorite things, but, like children, it can be undiplomatic to name them. Putting works from Ancient Greece on your list while leaving out, say, most of the Asia section, can cause a stir inside your museum and beyond. Donors might be upset to find that a generous donation was not meant to be saved.
Foreclosure lists also involve grimy money considerations. Museums are generally reluctant to put prices on their funds, for pragmatic but also noble reasons. Many rare or unusual works are literally priceless. Additionally, while it could be useful for curators to know which ones are most valuable and need to be safeguarded, ranking them could also let others know. If thieves knew that, say, a Viking gold treasure was a museum’s most valuable asset, they might be more inclined to loot it. So, in the case of public institutions, could a government in lean times. The British Museum has long refused to award price tags to its treasures.
And all museums hate to discuss insurance, not least because many don’t. Among Britain’s “national museums”, a group of 14 institutions that includes the British Museum and the National Gallery, none has insurance for its permanent collections. It would simply cost too much. Rather, these museums are protected by government programs and a strong sense of fatalism.
Money, however, is only one criterion for shopping lists. A unique object, such as a pen that signed a peace treaty, can have sentimental or political value that far exceeds its financial value. The compilation of the lists obliges the Conservatives to calibrate such compromises. More mundane factors must also be weighed, including the weight itself.
At Ham House, firefighters in protective kits and breathing apparatus, bulky like old-fashioned diving equipment, move in with a hoarse breath. In their hands are the seizure sheets, which provide pictures of the objects and advice on how many firefighters are needed to transport them (one for light objects, three for heavier ones). At the Louvre, too, firefighters consult curatorial lists to see if they are feasible. Sometimes the real weight has to outweigh the cultural type. Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, is made up of three-quarters of a ton of igneous rock. Kept in the British Museum, it leads nowhere.
Other dimensions are also important. A painting like Hans Holbein’s “Ambassadors” stands more than two meters from tip to toe. You would have a hard time getting him through the door. In such cases, Mr Knatchbull says, “the bailout may be to use a Stanley knife and cut the painting out of the frame.” An Australian guide to priority lists gently reminds museums to consider not only their attachment to an object, but the object’s attachment to the museum. Screwdrivers may be needed, the guide notes. This is wise advice. No one wants to run the museum where firefighters played with an awkward wall rack while the section of Rome burned down.
Not all museums and galleries organize exercises. Even among those with a plan, some just assume the worst will never happen to them. And, in most cases, it isn’t. But as Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum of Brazil, knows better than anyone, when it does, it’s bad. In September 2018, six months after becoming the museum’s boss, he got off a plane on a Sunday evening to find his son and his assistant waiting for him. The assistant was in tears. The museum fire (photo on the previous page) had started. By the time it was released, most of the $ 20 million collection of items had been lost.
For museum directors who consider themselves immune, Mr. Kellner has harsh words. “I am not religious, but I will pray to God that this does not happen to you,” he said. “Because once that happens, you can’t go back, can you?” After all, when “it’s lost, it’s lost.” ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “Grab and go”