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As Louvre Recovers, We Asked: How Prepared Are Louisville Museums For Weather?

Bloom Street, East Louisville, August 4, 2009
Courtesy U of L Archives/Photo by Jennifer Beswick
Bloom Street, East Louisville, August 4, 2009

As the waters of the Seine River continued to rise last week, all eyes in the art world were focused on the Louvre. In the midst of the worst flood that Paris has seen since 1982, museum staffers and volunteers worked around the clock to implement a flood-protection planthat had been established for the institution in 2002. Pieces from lower-level storage were inventoried and packaged in crates, before finally being stacked on higher gallery floors among famous works like the Venus de Milo.

Despite the chaos, staff at the 220-year-old museum sprung into action quickly and as the water recedes, additional preventative measures in the event of future flooding are already in the works (including four large water pumps at a cost of around 14 million euro).

While the Seine River flooding seems a world away, it got me thinking: what would happen to the works housed in Louisville art museums in the event of a similar emergency -- especially those in locations particularly susceptible to flooding?

For example, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) is located on Main Street which runs parallel to the Ohio River, while the Speed Art Museum is situated on the University of Louisville campus, which floods with some frequency (most notably, in recent memory, during the 2009 Kentuckiana Flash Flood).

According to staff, both museums are prepared.

“The American Alliance of Museums and also the Association of Art Museum Directors require that accredited museums have disaster preparedness plans,” Scott Erbes, the chief curator of the Speed, says. “So this is the norm across institutions, though the plans vary some based on geography.”

Erbes explains that a museum in California, for example, may put more emphasis on what to do in preparation for an earthquake -- while the Speed takes special measures to prevent water damage, since the area surrounding the museum has a history of flooding.

“The Speed was flooded quite dramatically in 1937,” he says. “We still have things in the collection that show the evidence of that, and there is great correspondence and accounts in our archives about Mrs. Speed and her small staff and how they addressed that.”

Preparations have come a long way since then. Erbes says that the first step is putting systems in place to alert staff -- whether that is fire or water detection.

“The most valuable resource we have, however, are 24-hour security staff who are continually circulating through the whole building, including art storage spaces,” Erbes says. “People are the first line of defense.”

He also says that any art stored on lower levels is elevated off the ground in specially designed, temperature-controlled cabinets as a basic starting point -- an important step since only about 9 percent of the Speed’s collection is on view at any given time.

KMAC has taken additional measures to prepare for potential flooding, since the museum is only separated from the Ohio River by a flood wall. Mary Wallace is the museum’s operations manager.

“Since we have been undergoing a renovation, we have moved the bulk of our permanent collection off-site, which is a little bit safer distance from the Ohio,” Wallace says.

Additionally, when work is displayed at the newly-renovated KMAC, it will only be shown on upper-level galleries.

“It is unlikely, I would think, that any flooding would reach that area,” Wallace says. “And should we have anything located on the first or basement floors, it would be moved up.”

During their redesign, staff at the Speed Art Museum were also in communication with the Metropolitan Sewer District to identify sight drainage issues, and install a water basin underneath the museum’s art park.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Erbes says. “It’s cliche, but here it’s true. Over and over it’s true.”

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