Posted signage reminding staff of access restrictions to collections during construction, May 1, 2019.

Protection of Collections during Retrofit or Renovation

This #MayDay2019 post focuses on tasks and strategies to prevent construction incidents from occurring and affecting collections.

Yesterday, we celebrated MayDay2019 by reviewing the contents of Nora’s PRICE team go-bag, which you can explore in this Facebook Live, courtesy of the Foundation for the Advancement of Conservation!

This MayDay post comes to you at a time when cultural heritage disasters on a mass scale are fresh in people’s minds. Paying attention to high visibility events offers opportunity for learning and improving practice for all stewards of cultural heritage. While the causes of these disasters may vary, it is clear that collections are at increased risk for various types of incidents during construction events, even if the results may not be catastrophic. Unlike a natural weather or spontaneous accident, planned construction has a known timeline, and relevant safety measures that can be put in place. During construction, collections may be exposed to vibration, dust, water, fire, electrical or environmental systems disruption, and other security threats.  For this reason, establishing norms, expectations, and policies for risk preparedness and mitigation of threats should be part of project planning for any retrofit construction event.

Some mitigation factors already put into place by Smithsonian Facilities include: review of planned work submittals to determine issuance of and duration of fire permit and length of fire watch needed; dust mitigation plans such as installation of temporary fire-retardant curtain walls, particulate traps and tracking mats; installation of vibration sensors and monitoring limits; hazardous material storage and waste management plans; and more.

For example, soon, we are replacing our climate control system that regulates our collections space. As part of this managed changeover, there are pre-construction meetings with not only the Facilities’ construction point of contact, but also with representatives for the collections. At those meetings, we’ve established norms from the point of view of the stakeholders, which include unit staff and programs affected, the users we serve, and the collections themselves. We’ve confirmed needs such as noise control during work hours, required escorts, a dust control plan, and estimated or known downtimes for the environmental system. Respectively, these allow us to plan for: staff rotations for a point of contact to continuously monitor issues with collections in addition to Office of Protection Services providing a security escort in work areas; managing access to collections to reduce potential ingress of dust, unnecessary heat and humidity load while systems are offline; issuing general safety preparedness for staff working around a construction area; and managing communications with stakeholders.

We can also engage our colleagues who may not usually see themselves as a part of the collections team, but who are crucial to the support of preparation, response and recovery. Our disaster team and management discuss preparation steps such as temporarily staging supplies for emergency response closer to the work areas. We ask other teams to assist by moving collections out of of areas that may be at additional risk, to assist in monitoring conditions when they need to access collections in the course of their normal work, and to stand ready to raise an alert to the point of contact if they see anything worrisome. By writing a tabletop exercise (imagining not my worst nightmare, but a very likely scenario), and gathering stakeholders, we can walk people through a rehearsal of critical thinking about needs and challenges in mounting a response, and how all the teams and stakeholders have a part to play.

Are you looking at construction in, on or adjacent to existing collections environments in your future? Beyond the tips above, here are some helpful resources to consider.

Occasionally, regional conservation associations have offered training courses regarding protection of collections and sites preparing for construction events. Some include:

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