The journalist was not having it. He tailed the museum director out the door. “Are you looting the museum for your own personal means?” he demanded. “I totally saw you slip something into your car earlier today.”
Obviously, the emergency evacuation of the state museum of “Smithsonia” was not going according to plan.
This scene played out at the Smithsonian on a recent Wednesday afternoon, during an exercise in which a group of cultural-heritage professionals and emergency responders tried to evacuate the fictional Smithsonia museum after a pretend cyclone. They had all come to Washington, D.C., for the weeklong Heritage Emergency and Response Training, or HEART, hoping to learn how museums can plan for natural disasters or even war.
The HEART organizers did not make it easy: The museum’s collection was scattered and uncatalogued, the staff were largely absent, the aforementioned reporter was snooping around for dirt, and the museum’s director was, well, you already know. To successfully evacuate the museum, the team would have to navigate egos, bureaucracies, and public opinion—plus move dozens of fragile objects.
These included a cabinet of ceramics (to be individually Bubble Wrapped), several framed drawings (also to be Bubble Wrapped), and a giant, crumbling flag (to be carefully rolled up and supported atop a bed of cut-up boxes). All of these had to be lifted down a set of stairs, through a narrow tunnel, back up the stairs, out the door, down an outdoor path, and back into another building. All in an hour.
“I would do 200 things differently,” Megan Salazar-Walsh, one of the HEART participants, later said.
HEART is a program of the Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative, which deploys experts to sites of conflict or natural disaster around the world. Corine Wegener, one of the organizers of HEART, previously recovered artifacts looted from museums during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2010, she went to Haiti after the earthquake and worked on restorations at the Centre d’Art and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s historic murals—that project eventually led to the formal creation of the Cultural Rescue Initiative.
Since then, the group has worked to preserve heritage sites and museums in Iraq, Syria, post-earthquake Nepal, and most recently Puerto Rico.
Large museums have detailed emergency-response plans—in some cases, built in their very architecture. The Getty Museum, recently threatened by wildfires around L.A., has a million-gallon water tank and an air-filtration system that keeps out smoke. The Whitney Museum in New York City is protected by a 15,500-pound flood door “designed by engineers who build watertight latches for the U.S. Navy’s destroyers.”
Not all museums are impenetrable fortresses, though, and the state museum of Smithsonia was considerably more modest. In fact, it was woefully understaffed, which is why it had to rely on volunteers, played by the HEART participants, to evacuate it. They had divided into five teams of five, each with a team leader who in turn reported to the incident commander, Megan Salazar-Walsh.
In their real lives, the participants were geographically diverse, spanning Alaska to Puerto Rico. Salazar-Walsh is an art conservator at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida.
The list skews toward larger cities and metropolitan areas along the Eastern corridor, stretching as far north as Toronto and as far south as Miami. And it looks like some of the economic incentives might be paying off.