After Fire, a Rush to Preserve History

The Wall Street Journal - December 26, 2014

by Jennifer Smith and Jennifer Smith

The first floor of the American Museum of Natural History still reeked of smoke when the museum’s emergency team swept in to assess the damage from a fire that forced the evacuation of some 4,000 people. The Dec. 12 fire, sparked when heat from a worker’s torch ignited a filter in an exterior ventilation unit, pumped soot and smoke into the museum’s oldest exhibition hall, the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Then two sprinklers came on, splashing some totem poles and display cases filled with ceremonial masks, tools and other irreplaceable artifacts.

Such accidents, while rare, are a museum administrator’s nightmare. “We’re here to preserve these objects for the historical record, for the people,” said Judith Levinson, director of conservation for the museum’s anthropology division.

Her team rushed in as soon as firefighters gave the all-clear, about 2½ hours after the fire broke out. Custodians wiped down areas flooded when the sprinklers went off, while conservators in surgical gloves began documenting the condition of the objects on display.

Soot was everywhere. It coated the walls, display cases and the hall’s more than six dozen wooden carvings and totem poles, some of which rise 18 feet and date back over a century. Water had seeped into display cases housing baskets, cedar bark costumes worn in dancing ceremonies and implements fashioned from bone and animal horn.

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians opened in 1899 to display objects gathered at the turn of the 20th century, from an expedition organized by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas that some consider the most important in U.S. anthropology.

A curator at the natural-history museum, Mr. Boas wanted to document indigenous cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait that he feared would succumb to disease and pressure to assimilate into broader North American or Russian society. Members of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, named after a president of the museum, collected artifacts and ethnographic data and took hundreds of photographs of cultural groups on the Pacific coasts of Siberia, Alaska and Canada that augmented the existing collection, which began in the late 1870s. Other collections are also housed in the hall.

Most of this month’s water damage was confined a section of the hall that showcased art and tools from the Tlingit peoples. All told, some 180 artifacts—about 10% of the hall’s contents—were removed and taken to a special climate-controlled storage area. Many were unscathed but needed a temporary home because their cases got soaked; 108 objects got wet, although many only slightly, Ms. Levinson said.

The museum had an emergency-response plan. But it had never been tested until the fire, which Ms. Levinson said was the only such incident she could recall in her three decades there.

The damage wasn’t as extensive as initially feared—“the water in many cases was just a light splash or sprinkling,” she said.

Still, the museum’s handful of conservators needed some backup to get the exhibition hall reopened in time for the holiday crowds. Adding to the pressure: The latest film in the “Night at the Museum” movie franchise, which has boosted holiday attendance at the museum, was scheduled to hit theaters on Dec. 19.

Interns and volunteers have pitched in on the recovery efforts, and two additional curators have been hired on a contract basis to help. An outside disaster-recovery company was enlisted to clean everything in the hall that wasn’t an artifact.

“They came in with 20 people and eight lifts,” as well as an industrial air-scrubber, Ms. Levinson said, “and they did it in about two days.”

Six days after the fire, the hall buzzed with workers wearing headlamps, masks and reflective yellow vests. Conservators gently brushed soot and dust off the carvings into hoses connected to hip vacuums, while cleaners scrubbed the hall with vulcanized rubber sponges. Smaller sponges were used to remove soot from hard-to-reach crannies in the totem poles.

In another wing of the museum, staffers have been busy cataloging the impact on the various objects from the display cases. The museum has insurance for such incidents and plans to file a claim.

But the total cost of the damage isn’t yet known, and given the historic nature of the artifacts, it will be challenging to appraise, museum spokesman Roberto Lebron said.

The objects are “a record of life on earth,” he said. “They’re considered priceless.” It took about two days for most of the damp artifacts to dry. Among them: masks made from painted wood and decorated with hair and shredded cedar bark, and ladle-sized spoons fashioned from animal horn, some with intricately carved handles. A few spoons were marred by small spots where water from the sprinklers mixed with fish-oil residue left over from their original use.

Other objects appear unharmed but were removed because their cases were damaged. Some, which hadn’t been removed from the hall since their arrival, are being remounted to place less strain on the aging materials.

In a way, the fire was a successful test of the museum’s emergency-response plan, Ms. Levinson said. People worked together without panicking, and the damage thus far appears to be minimal.

“We were lucky,” she said. While it will take some time before the artifacts return to public display, the hall is back open and, on a recent Tuesday, was filled with visitors.

“It’s so historic,” Ms. Levinson said, “so beloved by everyone in the museum, but also New Yorkers, too—people who have been coming here their whole lives.”