Emergency planning readies cultural organizations for anything
By Janet Scherberger
Featured image above: Emergency planning is vital for museums, libraries, historical societies, humanities nonprofits, and other cultural institutions that are the keepers of historical documents and artifacts.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, striking fear with its 175 mph winds and bands stretching nearly as wide as the Florida peninsula.
Tina Peak, director of library and historical resources at the Lake Wales Library and History Museum, and her colleagues sprang into action.
“We took our most critical pieces, the ones we considered irreplaceable, and loaded them up in our bookmobile and parked it in a safe place,” says Peak.
All were secured first, and then the building.
The team knew what to do thanks to multiple emergency response training programs.
Most recently, Peak took advantage of emergency planning webinars hosted by the Florida Association of Museums and supported by a $26,000 grant from Florida Humanities.
“I always come away with an idea or experience someone else has had that sharpens our plan,” Peak says. “That’s why I did the virtual classes.”
The free, six-session series, now available online, includes identifying risks, digitization to preserve artifacts, developing emergency plans, and tabletop exercises to simulate disaster response. In addition to hurricanes, the program helps organizations plan for a variety of emergencies, such as floods, fire, prolonged power outages, and pandemics.
The partnership between Florida Humanities and the Florida Association of Museums resulted from special initiative funds awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Emergency Fund to assist cultural agencies directly affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
The program serves not only museums, but also libraries, historical societies, humanities nonprofits, and other cultural institutions.
“Any organization can – and should – develop contingency plans,” says Malinda Horton, executive director of the Florida Association of Museums. “Disasters may be hyperlocal, like a broken pipe in your museum’s basement, or a storm that impacts an entire region. Living anywhere, planning for those types of events is critical. But living in the state of Florida, with the winds, the hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, humidity – you have to be prepared for anything.”
It’s not enough, Horton said, to simply develop a plan.
“It’s a living document and you’re constantly working on it.” she says. “You may not have to rewrite it every year but you need to look at it all the time.”
More than 200 people participated in the webinars, from all corners of the state and other parts of the country. They represented organizations ranging from small, volunteer-run institutions to large organizations with staff to handle emergencies. Feedback from participants revealed that many small organizations don’t have an emergency response plan, and most institutions don’t practice emergency response on a regular basis, demonstrating the importance of the webinars.
So far, about 562 participants have taken advantage of the program, either during the live sessions or via recordings.
“The workshops helped me refresh my memory of what to do when issues arise,” says Anne Webster, senior educator and animal care specialist at the IMAG History & Science Center in Fort Myers. “Since the workshops, we have begun rewriting our procedures for emergencies. We have also added water sensors in the building that alert the directors by phone if water is detected.”
Emery Grant, deputy director of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, says the interactive approach to the programs provided added benefit.
“It’s always helpful to engage with colleagues from across the state,” he said. “You aren’t being talked at for two hours. It’s very useful and gives you something you can bring back to your organization and do internally.”
The workshops, hosted live from November 2020 through March 2021 in partnership with FEMA’s Heritage Emergency Task Force, Florida Division of Emergency Management, Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts and the Society of Florida Archivists, are available online at flamuseums.org.
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