Preparing for the Worst: Collections Emergency Preparedness at the National Building Museum

Categories: Articles

By Laura Hicken, Assistant Registrar

Recent cultural tragedies including a devastating museum fire in Brazil and Hurricane Florence flooding parts of North Carolina remind us that no community—or museum—is safe from disaster. The collections staff at the National Building Museum have safeguards in place to protect our artifacts from damage and also steps to take in case of an emergency. While we are fortunate that the Museum is located in a region that generally enjoys mild weather, we monitor temperature and humidity daily and walk through our collections and exhibition spaces regularly to check for potential hazards and concerns.

Strapping Artifacts: We use specially selected materials to strap our large artifacts securely to their shelves while also making sure they’re not damaged by the straps themselves.


Examples of our regular maintenance include:

  • Environmental Monitoring: No, this isn’t a seismograph- this is a hygrothermograph and we use them, along with digital loggers, for daily monitoring of the temperature and relative humidity in our galleries and collections spaces.

    No exhibit or collections spaces are below ground as added protection against flooding.

  • All artifacts are stored and displayed off the floor to prevent water damage.
  • Windows are already blocked or covered in rooms that contain artifacts.
  • We have fire detection and suppression systems throughout our historicbuilding.
  • Our HVAC system is monitored 24/7 and the machines are checked daily by our engineers.
  • We have security guards on site 24/7 and monitored alarm systems in all galleries and collections spaces, so staff can be alerted to a problem even in the middle of the night.
  • Our entire collection is stored onsite so staff can access the collection quickly in the event of an emergency.
  • We regularly backup our collections database files to an offsite server.
  • We maintain and distribute an emergency contact list for any issues in the galleries or collections space.
  • Landlines in the collections space mean we can call for assistance even if we’re not getting cell service.


Before Hurricane Florence hit—when it appeared D.C. was in the storm path—we reviewed areas we considered most vulnerable and took the following precautions:

  • Moving artifacts even further from the blocked windows
  • Covering open shelving areas with plastic sheeting in case of leaks
  • Reviewing who on staff could get to the Museum quickly and safely should we need to check on the collection
  • Reviewing the Museum’s Collections Disaster Plan (last updated in 2015, scheduled for another update this year)
  • Congratulating ourselves that we have an up-to-date inventory thanks to amazing interns and volunteers

Of course, hurricanes and blizzards generally tend to come with advance warning and heavy media coverage. We were lucky that we could monitor the reports about Florence and make informed decisions about how to respond.

Elevating Artifacts: Even our heaviest and most difficult to move artifacts are stored on pallets to protect from water damage in the event of a flood.


This was not the case, however, in 2011 when all of D.C. was shocked to feel the effect of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia shake the city. The National Building Museum was fortunate that no artifacts were harmed during the earthquake, but we still decided to take extra precautions in the wake of this new type of threat.

The Museum’s chief preparator added extra bracing to high shelving and securely strapped down heavy or large objects on shelving to better prepare us should another earthquake come along. We like to joke that collections staff are professional worriers, but it comes from a love of and commitment to our wonderful artifacts.

Stay safe this hurricane season, and remember to keep your own precious objects off the floor whenever possible.