Monday, March 7, 2011

Snow Day

From the desk of Colleen Wilson,
Conservator at the Royal BC Museum

It snowed last week; it was quite beautiful and quite a novelty in Victoria. But abrupt changes of temperature and wild swings of humidity are bad news for artifacts; could winter weather mean problems for our collections?

One year, in a freak snow and wind storm, snow blew inside one of the ventilation pipes in the exhibit building. Occasionally the wet load on the Tower has leaked a little through the ceiling. In December there was a spate of minor issues – a fault in the sprinkler system, a plumbing leak, a damaged drain.

Conservation personnel are always available to respond to emergencies involving artifacts, and they are among the first to be called in response. To make sure the necessary supplies are at hand, Emergency Carts are parked in various locations through the Tower, Archives and Exhibits buildings. Towels, fans, spill pillows, mops, Tyvek suits, duct tape and more are poised to be deployed if a leak, drip, back-up or flood threatens the collections.

Mostly, however, we try to prevent the situations that could become disasters for artifacts. In discussions with Facilities, Conservators advocate for more precise and responsive environmental controls (keeping the humidity down by turning up the heat does not make for happy collections) and a sensible fire suppression system.

In most cases, however, the potential problems are the result of our aged building. It is in the nature of plumbing to leak sometimes, but we can’t really work in a building without water. If the building is not a perfectly protective shell, then the containers in which the artifacts are stored must do the job. If the artifact is unusual in its size or requirements, then its specific needs must be addressed (a pair of out-sized Chinese embroideries reside in a cozy container made from sewer pipe).

Where there is a possibility of plumbing or roof leaks reaching artifacts, collections are stored in water-proof boxes or protected by polyethylene sheeting. A minor toilet overflow could have disastrous results for artifacts on the floor, so all artifacts are stored on blocks or shelves.

Protection from water also mitigates the damage that might be caused by other potential calamities. Artifacts stored in water-proof containers are less likely to be damaged in the course of fire suppression. Customized supports within the containers will provide protection during an earthquake; in the meantime they moderate the effect of collections moves. And most importantly, the problems in December gave us the opportunity to practice. Our response was prompt and effective and it kept the issue on the minor end of the scale.

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