Collections in Catastrophe: A Study of Disaster Preparedness in New Orleans Art Museums
by Heather Burich
United States art museums located in geographically hazardous zones should be well-informed about the considerable risks posed to their collections at any given time. As the impact of climate change intensifies, public institutions need to review their collection management policies in response to the growing frequency of natural disasters. After the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida over the past two decades, the city of New Orleans (Louisiana) has become an example for how to develop and rework protocols for emergency preparedness. These museums’ efforts in protecting cultural heritage have ensured the survival and longevity of their museum collections for both local and tourist communities to learn from, identify with, and celebrate.
My master’s thesis investigates cultural heritage protection for art museums that are threatened by climate change and natural catastrophes. Focusing on three case studies—the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the New Orleans African American Museum—I want to learn from their experiences with disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery of art objects. By interviewing museum staff and professionals in the field of disaster preparedness, and assessing each organization’s collection management policy, I will analyze how these museums implemented precautions that could be transferable to future catastrophes at other institutions in the United States, and possibly how to establish collaborative initiatives for endangered institutions.
My main research questions revolve around the locus of cultural heritage management and resiliency in New Orleans (NOLA). What are the issues of cultural heritage protection in a city facing climate change or one located in natural disaster hazardous zones? What have these institutions learned from catastrophic experiences, and what does learning mean here? I am curious as to what organizations in New Orleans have learned from their experiences enduring Hurricanes Katrina and Ida, and if this learning has translated into a collaborative process to create specialized initiatives for art object longevity. If this is the case, the communication, planning, assessment, and comparison of goals and missions add layers of depth to the formulation of effective disaster preparedness protocols nationwide. What other agencies have been involved in emergency planning, mitigation, response, and recovery of cultural heritage, and what benefit do they contribute to the museums in question. Most importantly, the outcome I hope to achieve in this thesis is to evaluate how the lessons learned and precautions implemented by NOLA art museums are transferable to other projects in the United States. I believe that my chosen case studies serve as prime examples for others located in geographically hazardous zones, or more urgently, for places where climate change will have a future impact.
My research methodology has closely engaged with contextual reading and conceptual mapping. Using Joseph A. Maxwell’s Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, and engaging in collaborative activities, myself and student colleagues have developed our personal research designs to undertake our summative master’s theses. In early October, I remotely attended the Smithsonian’s annual National Conference of Cultural Property Protection. Over two days, various organizations and professionals across the country spoke about current initiatives in cultural property protection both within and outside of institutions. These discussions highlighted the resilience of staff and consultants even in the face of natural disaster. I have also reached out to staff at select museums nationwide with a brief questionnaire about the evolutions of their collections management policies and how these policies might have changed due to natural disasters that may have impacted their respective cities and to gauge interest in participating in a more formal interview process. The responses to this survey have been promising, and I have been awarded a grant to travel to New Orleans this winter to visit my case study institutions and complete interviews with staff and specialists in the field. Another interview I will conduct will be with Samantha Forsko, the current Director of Collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, who also wrote her master’s thesis on emergency preparedness in cultural heritage organizations and cooperative disaster networks. In 2022, gathering and interpreting primary source information will be my main focus as I finalize my thesis and complete my dual degree master’s in arts administration and art history. With this research, my hope is that these methods of inquiry on art museums’ current collection management policies and protocols will continue to be applied to institutions with similar situations that may find themselves in need of disaster preparedness in years to come.
Heather Burich is a third year dual-degree graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago finishing her Master’s in Modern & Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism and Arts Administration & Policy (‘22). Her research involves the social, political, and personal implications of collections management, archives, and cultural property protection.