Disaster: Earthquake Territory!

There are so many churches in Italy. And in Italy churches can be museums…not only because they have amazing works of art, but because they have been turned into museums. The new cathedral in Ravello was built in the 15th c. next to a church that dates back to the 11th c. That 11th-c. church is now a museum with church furnishings that date back to the 11th, 12th, and 13th. cs. But this is earthquake territory. How does the museum address this potential disaster?


You can see brass supports on this 13th.-c. eagle, a symbol of St. John the Evangelist that was once part of a pulpit. These supports work to stabilize the object. They allow for some movement, but the sculpture will likely not be thrown to the ground and smashed.


Mosaic reliefs are also supported this way.

Here is a view of the original church as it appears today…as a museum.

How do museums plan for disaster? Fire? Flood? Earthquake? American museums are faced with all three potential and real disasters. What have you observed?

26 thoughts on “Disaster: Earthquake Territory!

  1. I know that museums and archives work differently in many aspects but I also know they both feature some sort of disaster plan in case of emergency. Typically an archive/museum would want to save their staff and ensure the safety of all people before saving anything inside. Once everyone is accounted for the next thing would be to save the rarest and most priceless artifacts there are, like the Mona Lisa or something. Then you would follow the same mindset for the rest of the artifacts. Disasters can never be predicted and often happen without warning and their effects can be devastating on anything in a museum. So having a good contingency plan to deal with whatever issues arise is good, that way confusion can be averted and preserving the collection can be ensured.

    • You bring up a really good point. Do you think that museums also have insurance on all their artifacts in case of such an emergency?

      • While most museums probably have some type of insurance on their displays, I wonder if museums with less money have the same luxury of insurance or if there is some artifacts that have insurance and some that do not within the same museum.

      • I think it would really beneficial for museums to have insurance on all their artifacts in case of emergencies. Realistically, I do not think it is plausible for smaller and underfunded museums to be able to afford such luxuries. However, I do think larger and more well-funded museums should be able to adequately make sure their artifacts have insurance.

      • I do believe that most works have insurance, but at the same time depending on the amount of damage no dollar amount of insurance may be able to make up for the destruction caused.

    • Disaster-relief plans in effect are perhaps the most effective way of handling these types of situation. You are best prepared when preparing for the worst, after all!

  2. Museums have to design plans in advanced to prepare for all types of issues, including weather disasters. All museums are expected to have plans that address how the museum will care for staff, visitors and collections in case of emergency. This should be specific to the museum’s unique circumstances and facilities and should cover all relevant threats or risks to the museum, its collection and its people. From speaking with a small museum curator in class, this responsibility is very much placed on their shoulders.

    • I agree that it is the curator’s responsibility but I don’t believe that it should rest only on their shoulders for preparing for these types of disasters. I remember one of the speakers mentioning how the museum they were working for has flooded and they lost a lot of pieces. It was shocking to learn that this had happened before though and no one had done anything to prevent another one. He eventually got some water stoppers installed under the doors through which helped in the future. Since the curator before him did nothing about the first flood it led to another loss of artwork so the rest of the staff should have stepped up to come up with the solutions and not just left it to one person.

    • The registrar is responsible for the safety of the artwork, but they can not implement an action plan if others will not corporate. A disaster relief plan is only effective if every one follows the guidelines. In case of emergency it is obviously more important to ensure the safety of the staff and visitors, but the art should have a certain level of protection that does not involve human interaction, since people may need to evacuate for protection.

    • I agree that the responsibility of preparing for crisis falls on the museum, but sometimes they’ll need extra help from the city in order to fully protect the works of art. Large projects like barriers around the museum are sometimes not under the museums jurisdiction. It will also be hard to blame the museum if a freak act of nature destroys works of art as their are some events that are so unexpected and unlikely their isn’t any way to prepare for it and it isn’t in the museums budget or best interest to prepare for it even though the chance is still there.

  3. In traveling to different museums throughout America, I have learned many things. I have not, however, really notice what museums have done to help prevent damage to artifacts of pieces of art. Like Natalie, I have learned much from the speakers who have visited out class over the past couple of weeks. I know that the different preventive measures that museums take is specific to each museum, so it is impossible to generalize the procedure. Other than insuring the pieces in case something does happen, and making sure the building is properly secure from possible water damage and such, there is not a lot some museums can do, especially because of their budget.

    • I think state museums have a much easier time in obtaining federal funds they can utilize for disaster preparedness. I’ve noticed at smaller museums, particularly small private ones, art is more heavily insured, but there is very little to no contingency plans in place to save the artwork if any issue were to arise. I think it varies from museum to museum because some museums are more prone to some disasters than others. For instance, in California, wildfires are a huge problem, so fire insurance and contingency plans are much more prevalent.

  4. During my time working at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, I was able to learn some of the disaster preparedness programs the museum had in place in the occasion of flood, fire, or earthquake. The natural disaster that seemed to have the least contingency plans in place, however, was an earthquake. However, Richmond, the location of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is not a highly earthquake prone area. I think more earthquake-prone areas should have multiple contingency plans for saving the museum’s artwork in the case of an earthquake.

  5. The American Alliance of Museums has compiled a list of resources to help museums prepare and recover from potential disasters. The National Heritage Responders provides 24/7 aide to institutions and are located all across the US. The AAM also lists other emergency response aid and guidelines on how to prepare for potential dangers. The International Council of Museums is the world community for museums and their network is made of over 20,000 museums, including the Metropolitan, the Louvre, and the Palace Museum in Asia. They are committed to emergency response and damage prevention. One of the main functions of a museum during an emergency is to make sure everyone is out of the building safely and then they may re-enter and assess damage. The AAM offers a chart from the Western Association for Art Conservation that gives tips on how to handle damaged items.

  6. The disaster preparations for each museum is dependent on their location and what the biggest threat is to the works. Many museums take the history of natural disasters of the area in which they are located. In LA, museums have both earthquake and fireproof mechanisms that help protect art and artifacts as California is famous for having those types of natural disasters. However, most modern museums have built their structures taking these natural disaster into account and many sites are incredibly old and were not constructed taking natural disasters into account or the technology simply wasn’t available at the time to do so. Due to these facts these buildings are incredibly prone to natural disasters and so extra precautions are taken and modern technological tools are installed on the facade and inside the interior of these old buildings. In certain of these precautionary measures may have little to no effect in protecting the art as there might be a freak earthquake that registers 10 on the Richter scale and no amount of preparation will have any effect. Many museums are insured in case their works are damaged, but it is hard to see what could possibly replace a work of art that has become bigger than just a price tag.

  7. It is very hard to be prepared for disasters since many people find it hard to imagine horrible things happening. Museums run the risk of not only damaging artifacts, but they have to deal with the reality that things could be destroyed. Precautionary things such as these brackets pictured above or fire proof containers are something that can help in disasters, but there is always the risk of loosing things permanently.

    • Along with that risk and reality of destroyed works is the cost of them. Some museums cannot afford insurance on works of art. Also who takes the blame if something is destroyed?

  8. Natural disasters are always a problem that can really only be planed for because you cannot find out if something truly works until it is put into practice. It is important for museums to plan for the top disasters in their area and hope for the best. Planning for such matters to the best they can is great but putting them to the test is very worrisome because if it does not work, then now you have damaged works. For earthquakes I personally always think of Japan and their building designs where the buildings move along with shaking. Another issue for museums is if they even have the resources to install precautions to possibly save works.

  9. I know a few ways museums try to minimize damage caused by disasters that I learned from the speakers that came to our class (that a few people above me have mentioned) is that in the back rooms they would seatbelt or tie down works to prevent them from falling out in case of an earthquake, putting water stoppers under doors in case of floods, and water sprinklers in common areas in case of fires. Some that I have observed myself from visiting museums are that they have emergency exit plans listed around the museum and signs telling people to not use elevators in case of a fire. I cannot think of any specific examples though of museums protecting work besides putting them behind glass or making sure that they are bolted to a wall.

  10. I remember one of our guest speakers touching on this topic. I believe at the museum in question, the works in storage were stored off the floor, in case of flood, and usually strapped into place and cushioned, in case of earthquakes. But then, what about the works on display? I think this museum does a good job of protecting their works on display from earthquakes. In terms of fire, perhaps you could have a system that can close off the room that is on fire and then can remove the oxygen from that room; fires need oxygen to burn. Of course, you would also have to be able to get all of the patrons and employees out of the room before that went into effect. For floods I am not sure. If the water leak was slow, it would give you time to move all the works, as long as nothing was kept on the floor. Works in storage can be put in water tight containers but again you have the problem of the works on display. Several people above have mentioned stoppers under doors. On ships there are usually pumps that help to bail water out if the ship starts sinking so maybe something like that could be implemented?

  11. We’ve seen in past history, such as during World War II and more recently with the growing attacks by ISIS in the Middle East, that museums first move to put specific plans into place to prevent the destruction or capture of these works. Due to these threats of flooding or earthquake they have to be stored in certain environments where they either are not on the floor or are cushioned by enough surroundings that they will not break. All of these things being easier said than done, while also understanding that even though there are precautions set up they don’t always work.

  12. From what I have seen, most museums that are specifically built in areas that commonly flood, have earthquakes, fires, or other natural disasters tend to design the architecture of the building based on their surroundings. The somewhat unique situation found here (and throughout Europe) is that the building was converted into a museum from a previously established church. If the original architects of the 15th century did not consider the dangers of an earthquake during the construction of the structure (which is unlikely due to the knowledge of the time), then most church/museum combinations would likely instill preventative measures such as support beams in the structure, extra stabilization for the artwork, and even a period of closure during the “hurricane/earthquake/dry” periods when natural disasters more commonly occur. I think the problem goes back to a common answer to all issues- the more knowledge you have about your situation, the better off you are.

  13. The church furnishings form the 11th, 12th, an 13th century are nice to see all in one place, so the stylistic changes become more noticeable because of the close proximity of the furnishings. However, since it is an earthquake zone, it is important to guarantee the safety of the art. By having the artwork anchored to the stands with the bronze stabilizers, the chance of the art smashing to the ground is vastly decreased. It is important to acknowledge potential damage from disasters when displaying art, especially if the location is prone to natural disasters. Fire, flood, and earthquakes are the main factors museums face. To alleviate potential flood damage, museums can display the artwork and elevated ground, and have water seals on the bottom of doorways. To protect from potential fire damage museums can construct the building out of nonflammable material such as brick (for new building). Museums can also minimize the fire risk by spacing out the works of art and making sure papers are properly stored, so the fire would have a decreased chance of spreading at a fast rate. For museums resting in earthquake zones it would be important to stabilize the work like this museum did. Even though there is always damage potential when a work of art is displayed, it is still important to display art for people to experience.

  14. All museums should have plans for how to deal with all types of disasters, even if a certain type of disaster is not common where the museum is located. It’s always good to be prepared for anything. The American Alliance of Museums has a list of resources and has given instructions on how to develop a disaster plan. Though, of course, each museum should create a disaster plan that is specific to the museum’s circumstances.

  15. In the case of a fire, sprinklers are always helpful. But what if it was just a small fire? Or a false alarm? Then the water that was meant for protection could cause destruction. That’s why I think if a museum has a sprinkler system, they should protect all things paper in watertight cases, even if they are on the walls. This thought actually came to me on our most recent trip to the Dupont gallery, as I was sitting down and happened to look up and notice the sprinklers.

  16. I suppose keeping the artifacts in the museum/ church where they originated is of most importance. It really resonates with the visitor to see objects that relate to their housing in this way. The museum, in this case, seems to have experience with natural disasters and has planned for it accordingly. If a museum knows that they are in an area that can be affected by natural disasters, they should plan for it or consider donating it to another museum in a safe location.

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