JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. to )



ABSTRACT—ABSTRACT—A massive fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada, in 1990 demonstrated that the initial response phase following a fire is a crucial period when priorities are established and decisions are made that will determine the success of collection recovery. A chronology of the fire response shows the speed at which decisions are made within the chaotic aftermath of a disaster. At the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, several factors contributed to an environment that slowed the initial response to soot damage and hampered collection recovery. These factors are analyzed with respect to improving the position of collections recovery within the larger context of the recovery of the entire museum, its programs, and its public image. The museum conservators learned the importance of an overall view in disaster planning; in particular, they found that special attention must be paid to the balance of power during a disaster response because it will determine whether plans for collection recovery can be acted upon in a real disaster situation. During the fire response and recovery, museum conservators also learned about the unique characteristics of soot and developed effective procedures for the initial response to soot and the salvage of soot-covered objects. Details of soot removal and cleaning during the recovery phase are discussed in another article in this issue.

TITRE—L'incendie au Royal Saskatchewan Museum, 1�re partie: sauvetage, interventions initiales et leurs implications sur la planification des mesures d'urgence. R�SUM�—L'incendie majeur qui eut lieu en 1990 au Royal Saskatchewan Museum (Mus�e royal de la Saskatchewan), � R�gina, au Canada, d�montra que la p�riode de temps pendant laquelle on proc�de aux interventions initiales apr�s un incendie est cruciale, car c'est alors que les priorit�s sont �tablies et des d�cisions prises qui auront un impact d�terminant sur le succ�s du sauvetage de la collection. Une chronologie des interventions est pr�sent�e dans le but de montrer la rapidit� avec laquelle des d�cisions peuvent �tre prises dans le contexte chaotique accompagnant un sinistre de ce genre. Au Royal Saskatchewan Museum, il y eut plusieurs facteurs qui contribu�rent � ralentir les interventions initiales aupr�s des objets couverts de suie et qui cr��rent des obstacles au sauvetage de la collection. Ces facteurs sont �tudi�s afin d'apporter des suggestions pour aider � ce que le sauvetage des collections devienne une plus grande priorit� par rapport au sauvetage au sens plus large du mus�e en entier, de ses programmes et de son image publique. Les restaurateurs du mus�e apprirent l'importance d'avoir une vue d'ensemble lorsqu'on entreprend la planification de mesures d'urgence; en particulier, ils trouv�rent qu'on doit porter une attention particuli�re � l'�quilibre des forces dans le mus�e durant les interventions suivant le sinistre, car ceci d�terminera si les mesures planifi�es pour le sauvetage de la collection seront vraiment mises en oeuvre. Durant les interventions de sauvetage, les restaurateurs se familiaris�rent avec les propri�t�s uniques de la suie et d�velopp�rent des proc�dures efficaces d'interventions imm�diates et subs�quentes pour des objets couverts de suie. L'�limination de la suie et le nettoyage des objets sont d�crits dans un autre article de ce num�ro.

TITULO—El incendio del Museo Real de Saskatchewan, parte I: Salvamento, respuesta inicial y las implicaciones de la planificaci�n ante desastres. RESUMEN—Un incendio de gran escala en el Museo Real de Saskatchewan en Regina, Canad�, en 1990 demostr� que despu�s de un incendio, cuando las prioridades est�n establecidas y las decisiones han sido tomadas, la fase inicial de respuesta es un per�odo crucial que determinar� el �xito de la recuperaci�n de una colecci�n. Una cronolog�a de la respuesta al incendio muestra la velocidad a la cual se toman las decisiones dentro de las ca�ticas consecuencias de un desastre. En el Museo Real de Saskatchewan muchos factores contribuyeron a un ambiente que demor� la respuesta inicial al da�o por holl�n y que complic� la recuperaci�n de la colecci�n. Estos aspectos son analizados con miras a mejorar la posici�n de la recuperaci�n de colecciones dentro del gran contexto de todo el museo, sus programas y su imagen p�blica. Los conservadores del museo aprendieron lo importante que es tener una visi�n global en la planificaci�n ante desastres. En particular, ellos descubrieron que debe d�rsele atenci�n especial al balance de poderes durante la respuesta al desastre porque ello determinar� si los planes para la recuperaci�n de la colecci�n pueden seguirse fielmente en una situaci�n real de desastre. Durante la respuesta al incendio y la recuperaci�n, los conservadores del museo tambi�n aprendieron acerca de las caracter�sticas particulares del holl�n, y adem�s desarrollaron procedimientos efectivos para la respuesta inicial al da�o por el holl�n y al salvamento de los objetos afectados por �l. Detalles sobre la remoci�n del holl�n y la limpieza, durante la fase de recuperaci�n, son discutidos en otro art�culo de esta publicaci�n.


Of the many disasters that can strike a museum, a fire is among the most destructive. In Canada, there were at least 27 museum fires between 1970 and 1990. The 1990 fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum was one of the most severe (Baril 1990).

1.1 1.1 THE MUSEUM

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) is the provincial museum of Saskatchewan located in Regina, Canada (fig. 1). The museum dates back to 1906, and the collection mandate includes First Nations (native Indian) objects, natural history material, paleontology materials, and some local history objects. The museum has occupied its 51,000 sq. ft. building since 1955. The building is of simple design, with a center block for the lobby, gift shop, and administrative offices. The center block is flanked by two wings: one wing consists of two levels devoted to exhibition galleries; the second wing houses, on the main level, an auditorium and boardroom, and, on the lower level, natural history storage rooms and museum education areas. The remaining storage areas and staff offices for curatorial, conservation, and exhibit personnel are in a building across the street, referred to as the Museum Annex. At the time of the fire, there were 40 staff members, including 3 conservators, at the RSM.

Fig. 1. Center block of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina, Saskatchewan

In the late 1980s, the museum began the considerable task of updating all the exhibits in the gallery wing. The original exhibits, constructed during the 1950s, consisted of long aisles flanked by dioramas and display cases. The new galleries were designed in a winding layout with objects and didactic materials in exhibit cases, in open and sealed dioramas, and on pedestals. By 1990, the museum had opened an Earth Sciences Gallery on the lower level and was in the midst of construction for a First Nations Gallery, also on the lower level. The Life Sciences Gallery on the upper level was next in line for renovation.

1.2 1.2 THE FIRE

The fire occurred on Friday, February 16, 1990, in the partially finished First Nations Gallery, lending support to an adage in conservation that fires occur most often during construction. The first large display in the gallery was a replica of a rock wall (15 � 20 � 2 ft.) constructed of polyester resin and fiberglass and decorated on the wall face with pictographs. An outside contractor had been brought in to inject a typical two-part polyurethane foam insulation behind the wall to add strength to the structure. After the contractor and a museum technician left the building for the evening, a fire began in the gallery.

Although no official cause of the fire was ever determined, the fire was presumed to have started when the insulation foam self-ignited. Heat had begun to build up due to the exothermic reaction of the two-part foam, which was sandwiched between the resin and fiberglass rock wall and the fire separation gallery wall. The foam, and eventually the materials surrounding it, proceeded to burn until an ionization smoke detector in the central return air duct registered the presence of smoke and triggered an alarm connected by a radio link to the fire station. The alarm sounded at 10:26 p.m. Six units and 14 firefighters arrived at the rear of the building within two minutes. Looking through the windows, they could see no evidence of fire. Then, only seconds later, thick billows of smoke appeared. Immediately the firefighters broke through the windows to enter the smoke-filled lobby. Because of the incredible speed of the black smoke buildup, in combination with several other factors, the firefighters conducted an hour-long search of the building before they were able to locate the source and extinguish the fire (Usherwood 1991). The fire completely gutted the 900 sq. ft. area represented by the room that held the rock wall but was mostly contained within it, and only 1,000 gal. of water were used in the firefighting effort.

While modern construction materials in the gallery prevented the flames from spreading and protected the structure of the building from serious damage, the smoke produced from the smoldering hour-long fire spread throughout the museum, depositing soot on every surface. The smoke traveled down aisles and stairs and was circulated to every corner of the building by the museum's highly efficient fan system, which had failed to shut down. The rapid and intricate spread of this thick, black, sticky smoke proved to be the greatest tragedy of all. The museum had no disaster plan and was caught completely off-guard.

In the First Nations Gallery, where the fire had started, the contents of the room—drywall, the rock wall and insulation, the partially constructed diorama, and exhibit supplies—were almost fully incinerated. Metal ducts and construction equipment were deformed by the intense heat (fig. 2). The products of incineration—i.e., the airborne soot—filled the First Nations Gallery, where the white, freshly plastered curving walls and empty cases were now covered with a thick layer of soot. The lower half of the walls had turned from white to gray, and the upper portion had blackened from the accumulation of the soot-filled air near the ceiling (fig. 3). The soot took on a different appearance depending upon its distance from the fire: in the immediate area of the burn site, the soot on the walls formed weblike filaments up to an inch long (fig. 4); in the galleries farther from the burn site, soot covered the surfaces with a black powdery mat (fig. 5).

Fig. 2. Fire site, showing the gallery wall previously occupied by the replica rock wall
Fig. 3. A sweat lodge diorama in the First Nations Gallery, showing soot coverage on the floor and diorama painted backdrop
Fig. 4. Detail of soot filaments on the lower half of the sweat lodge diorama painting
Fig. 5. Aisles in the upper-level Life Sciences Gallery, showing footprints on the soot-covered floor

Smoke generated by the smoldering fire followed the predominant air current through the First Nations Gallery and then up through ducts—left open during the construction—into a Life Sciences Gallery located on the floor above. This gallery was covered with a very thick soot layer (see fig. 5). The exhibits contained birds and animals on natural foregrounds in dioramas. The diorama shells, which were composed of acrylic paint on plastered forms or commercial tempera paint on primed canvas marouflaged to drywall, were pushed tight but not sealed to glass fronts. The fine soot easily penetrated this small air space, depositing in such an even fashion that the full extent of damage was not always apparent until a portion of the area was cleaned to provide a comparison (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Eagle diorama in the Life Sciences Gallery, showing a cleaned strip on the diorama background

The fire separation wall and a temporary construction door at the burn site had prevented the fire from penetrating the neighboring Earth Sciences Gallery. In this gallery the soot deposition was somewhat less than in the gallery on the upper level since it was naturally at a slightly lower pressure. Moreover, the doors to the Earth Sciences Gallery had remained closed for most of the fire, and the smoke had a tendency to rise rather than move laterally. However, some soot did travel through the ventilation system and also through the temporary construction doorway separating the First Nations and the Earth Sciences Galleries when it was opened during the fire search. A thicker mass of smoke traveled above the suspended ceiling tiles, which bulged with black soot. A replica of a turtle skeleton, enclosed in a display case, was blackened from soot dropping down through a quarter-sized hole made for lighting the case (fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Displays in Earth Sciences Gallery: case on left, soot has infiltrated; case on right, escaped soot deposit

Bird specimens, stored in closed but not sealed wooden cabinets on the lower level, farthest from the burn site, did not escape without harm. Soot entered the cabinets through minute gaps, leaving a light dusting on the approximately 1,500 mounted specimens (fig. 8). A similar deposition was left on the mammal mounts and furs stored on open shelving in another room that had been opened during the fire search. In the administration areas on the third level, soot penetrated behind closed office doors, between papers in closed filing cabinets, in desk drawers, cabinets, storage boxes, and through all other imaginable crevices.

Fig. 8. Storage cabinet far from fire showing fine soot coverage after mounted bird specimens were removed

The degree of soot coverage varied throughout the building. It was apparent that the thickest soot coverage occurred on the upper floors and in spaces that allowed free passage of soot down aisles, through open ducts, and above ceilings. Soot deposition was less in areas with closed doors, negative air pressure, and little ventilation (particularly since the ventilation system had failed to shut down). There was also less soot penetration in rooms that were not opened during the fire search. The only portions of the building resistant to the penetration of soot were the walk-in freezer and fully sealed units such as display cases with windowed fronts sealed with gaskets.


During the two-week response phase following the fire at the RSM, decisions were made and priorities established that would inexorably guide the fire recovery. A chronological review of this response period reveals the complexities and pressures involved in a postdisaster situation and the surprising speed at which decisions are made (Pingert 1991).

The fire at the RSM took place on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning of day 1 after the fire, no one had the presence of mind to secure the building properly, and staff, the media, and some curious members of the public could be seen wandering through the building. Later that day, the municipal fire marshal ordered the building sealed for investigations. In addition to the fire marshals, a contingent of investigators arrived at the disaster scene: the city police fire investigators, the municipal fire investigators, a representative from the provincial fire commissioner, a special investigator from the fire insurance underwriters, and the landlord's insurance adjuster.

On the weekend (days 1 and 2 following the fire), conservators planned a salvage and cleaning strategy, beginning a supply list and searching files for any information on removal of soot during a fire recovery. The conservators took no other active steps during the first two days following the fire and largely guessed at the salvage and cleaning procedures that might be used to clean the collection. They found that articles on salvage and recovery in the conservation literature focused almost entirely on water damage, and there was scant information available on disaster response following fires.

On day 3, the director of the museum held an off-site staff meeting to report on the events of the weekend. During the meeting, staff members learned two important things. First, the museum's building, furnishings, and immobile contents were not owned by the museum but were leased from a government property management corporation that acted as landlords and building managers. Second, although the building and furnishings were insured through the property management corporation, the museum collection and other museum materials (e.g., education, research, administrative) were self-insured by the government. This arrangement meant that the museum was in charge of the funding and organization of its own recovery.

Later that day, the museum management met to establish a museum cleanup committee, which would be responsible for making decisions to guide the recovery. The senior conservator, who was appointed head of this committee, was assigned the task of coordinating recovery activities and acting in liaison with the building recovery process. Administrative staff members were relocated to the Museum Annex and to another government building. Management personnel were informed that the government had allotted a small fund to start salvage and recovery operations. A request for additional funds and staff was forwarded to the government department in charge, and the government responded with a promise that the provision of these resources would be “fast-tracked.”

After the staff meeting on day 3, the museum cleanup committee met with the landlord (the government property management corporation). The landlord had already appointed a higher-level member of its staff as its own project manager, who had met with its legal, security, and operations advisers. The landlord's representatives had spent day 2 in meetings with its insurance adjuster (the adjuster represented six insurance underwriters that held the landlord's insurance) and a construction manager (chosen by the insurance adjuster) to draw up a plan of action. This building recovery group laid out a vision of the recovery: the recovery of the building and furnishings would be supervised on-site by the construction manager, who would work directly under the landlord's project manager and the insurance adjuster; the salvage and cleaning of all museum materials would be the responsibility of the museum cleanup committee. This arrangement set the stage for two interdependent but sometimes conflicting recovery paths—that of the building, its furnishings, and its immobile contents, and that of the museum collection and noncollection materials. It was obvious from this meeting that the property manager, the insurance adjuster, and the construction manager were familiar with their roles and procedures in postfire recovery, while museum officials were completely unprepared. On the Monday following the fire, the head of the museum committee found that the property management corporation “already had several wheels in motion,” whereas the museum “had nothing in place and no plan of action to speak of” (Pingert 1991, 30). As he recalled, “I was totally bewildered as to where or how we start clean up” (Pingert 1991, 4).

Day 4 began with a museum staff meeting. General duties were assigned for the recovery. Since the senior conservator would be occupied with overseeing the activities of the cleanup committee, the two other conservators on staff were assigned responsibility for the hands-on salvage and recovery of the collection. The conservation laboratory had always had a small contingent of volunteers, and it was expected that they would help out until temporary staff could be hired. With the on-site inspection by fire inspectors completed, members of staff were now given official clearance to enter the building. Though the conservators emphasized the importance of not disturbing the soot layers on the artifacts and requested that access to the gallery be restricted, other members of the staff objected. A compromise was reached that allowed staff members to tour the building to see the damage firsthand. The first emotional exchanges occurred on this day. Museum staff were shocked and upset by the disaster. Those who were used to a certain degree of authority over their area or their collection felt protective and expressed obvious symptoms of personal loss.

Arrangements for the building recovery moved quickly. On day 4, the insurance adjuster called for bids for cleaning of the building and furnishings. In the next two days, the building recovery group completed a schedule and an organization plan for the building recovery, along with specifications for the building trades. The members of the museum cleanup committee then had an opportunity to spend a few hours reviewing the specifications and adding their comments.

The galleries were in total darkness because of the density of the soot coverage and the fact that the fire had burned out some of the electrical circuits, including the lights for the galleries. The conservators had to proceed with the help of portable lights. Samples of soot were collected from various areas of the building and sent by courier to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for analysis. Working from days 4 to 7, the staff conservators conducted tests for soot removal on a range of collection and display materials in various areas of the building, using a kit consisting of brushes, a vacuum, dry-surface-cleaning materials such as erasers, and a variety of solvents and cleaning solutions. Their test results were collated into a report describing the cleaning methods to be used, suggested timelines, and the order in which objects should be cleaned. The report was passed on to the museum cleanup committee.

In the meantime, the museum cleanup committee began to formulate a plan of attack. The damaged museum was examined in detail to determine the multitude of tasks that would be required. Committee members realized that they would have to research everything from where to rent vacuum cleaners to the paint colors required for repainting walls and displays. Under some pressure from the government department in charge of the museum, they identified reopening the museum as the first priority. Curatorial and exhibit staff, who had been working on gallery development, began to realize that they would have to double their efforts in order to re-create damaged displays and speed up the development of galleries for public viewing. Because museum programs had to be revived as quickly as possible, administrative staff and educators were relocated to temporary offices in another government building, although without the benefit of any of their computers, files, or administrative supplies.

At a meeting on day 5, members of staff were told that an analysis of air in the building had been carried out and that it was safe for people to work on-site. Nevertheless, the gallery members group, who were in charge of the museum gift shop and provided most of the volunteer services at the museum, were wary about returning and did not resume their activities at the museum in earnest until a few days later.

On day 5, at the same time that many staff members were shown through the damaged building for the first time, the building recovery group was also conducting a tour for prospective cleaning companies. The head of the museum cleanup committee accompanied the tour to stress the extra considerations that would be required during the cleaning to ensure safety of the museum displays and collections so that the companies could accommodate these precautionary measures in their bid submissions.

On day 6, the museum cleanup committee established a list of priorities. Members of the committee agreed that the overriding goal was to open the museum as quickly as possible. As well, there was the inflexible and tight schedule for building restoration to consider. The Earth Sciences Gallery would be cleaned first, since it was the newest gallery space and the easiest to restore. The First Nations Gallery would be the next priority for cleaning, because it would be the next gallery that could open. Because the upper-level Life Sciences Gallery had sustained extensive damage and was already scheduled for redevelopment, it would not be restored but would be dismantled for renovation as time permitted. The specimens in this gallery and in storage would be cleaned.

Meanwhile, the building recovery group had reviewed the bids, and a commercial cleaning company (the one with the lowest bid) was selected. The company was taken on another tour of the museum by the construction contractor and the head of the museum cleanup committee to provide final instructions and establish priorities and procedures. The members of the museum committee were then told—to their horror—that to make way for the cleaning crew and allow for the cleaning of the building to proceed properly, all collections, administrative, and program materials would have to be removed from the building within four days.

On day 7, museum staff met to plan the salvage projects and develop estimates for the labor, materials, and alternative space that would be needed. The atmosphere at the meeting was frantic. The salvage of artifacts and their removal from the sooty building were discussed, but in the end it was decided that all artifacts would have to stay in the building during the recovery. Moving the delicate mounted specimens out of storage rooms to another location was impossible because of a lack of time and materials, and many artifacts on display were deemed immobile because they were very large, semipermanently mounted, or enclosed within display cases. The building restoration group insurance agent arranged for a moving company to pack and move furnishings and building items covered under the insurance policy. Museum staff and volunteers packed for the transfer of all educational, research, gift shop, and administrative material to temporary office spaces and to various government areas to await cleaning. Local companies were contacted for the rental of vacuum cleaners and supplies of disposable coveralls, dust masks, and latex gloves. In the end, it took seven days, until day 14, and a changing crew of workers (equivalent to about 35 person/days) to pack and remove all the administrative and noncollection program material from the museum. None of the material was vacuumed before removal.

During the second week, beginning on day 7, the two staff conservators began the initial salvage and recovery of museum contents in concert with the building cleaners and construction trades. The building cleaners descended on the building in double shifts, working 24 hours a day. The cleaners completed the first and second cleaning passes in the washrooms and three rooms that could be used as “clean rooms,” before starting on other areas of the building. At the same time, demolition crews began tearing down unrecoverable parts of the building and other burned material. One room was used to store the museum's recovery gear and as a meeting and change room for staff members.

From days 8 to 10, the conservators, volunteers, and a contingent of exhibit staff prepared the Earth Sciences Gallery for the first pass by the commercial cleaners. After a brief instructional session and the posting of simple cleaning rules developed by the conservators (e.g., how to vacuum, which cases to dismantle and which to leave), the display material and some artifacts were vacuumed and movable displays and artifacts were removed to the clean room. Immovable displays were draped with polyethylene to protect them from damage during cleaning operations. The demolition of the First Nations Gallery displays began during this week; parts of the gallery were protected with polyethylene draping, though there was no time to do an initial vacuuming of the items being covered. In parts of the galleries, temporary plywood barricades were erected to ensure that the cleaners would not disturb sensitive areas. The head of the cleanup committee spent the week gathering more supplies and scheduling the activities of the conservation crew in liaison with the building cleanup. As the days progressed, media interest grew and legal investigations intensified, but lacking a communications person on the cleanup committee, interviews and other communications were carried out by the head of the committee (the senior conservator), who was already overburdened with responsibilities.

By day 10, the construction manager had constructed temporary walls to zone off areas of the building, and large vacuum hoses were operating constantly in these zones to remove airborne contaminants. Museum staff turned their attention toward erecting shelving in another designated clean room in the basement. Bird and mammal specimens were moved from their sooty storage room into this somewhat cleaner room, so that their storage room could be cleaned.

During the third week (days 14 to 21), the museum cleanup committee finally had time to complete the paperwork required for staffing temporary positions for technicians. The committee also took part in the first formal meeting with lawyers representing various parties and took them on tours through the building to view damage; communication with insurance and legal representatives continued for several weeks. By the third week, the building cleaners had completed their first pass through the Earth Sciences Gallery, so that the conservation crew could now turn its attention to the tedious task of cleaning collection and display material. Portable lights were still required during cleaning because room lighting could not be installed until after other construction in the gallery was completed. Because museum staff members were occupied with rehabilitating programs and the senior conservator was engaged as head of the cleanup committee, the conservation crew was left with only the two staff conservators, one exhibit staff member, and several volunteers. Extra hiring did not take place until later in the recovery process.

The museum's recovery was carried out in concert with the demolition, cleaning, and reconstruction of the building. The conservation crew fell into a daily routine that involved salvaging displays and artifacts and cleaning in the order that complied with the overall recovery priorities that had been established (for further details on the recovery process, see Spafford-Ricci and Graham 2000). The two recovery paths often collided, and the crew was often forced to reschedule projects, to temporarily abandon partially completed projects, and to move collections from room to room in order to accommodate the building recovery. Even with these annoyances, the progress of conservation was undeniably facilitated by the ability to work in increasingly cleaner spaces and with the benefit of lighting and other necessities.

During week 5, the commercial cleaners completed final cleaning in the upper galleries and were unhappy with the pace of collection salvage in that area. Soot-covered specimens in the upper gallery had been vacuumed but not fully cleaned. The building restoration group indicated that, if sooty displays and specimens were to recontaminate the building, the additional cleaning cost would have to be borne by the museum itself. To prevent the need for additional cleaning, foregrounds from the dioramas would have to be removed. As the staff conservators were occupied with cleaning artifacts in the Earth Sciences Gallery, the first gallery scheduled for reopening, the task of dismantling the dioramas had to be carried out by members of the cleanup committee and volunteers.

The building restoration group completed the cleaning and reconstruction of the building on May 29 (week 15). The conservation crew continued to clean the Earth Sciences Gallery displays and artifacts until late June (week 19). The museum opened its doors, with only the one gallery ready, on June 23, four months and seven days after the fire. Even though one gallery reopened, the cleaning that remained for the conservators was daunting, involving thousands of collection objects and research and education materials. The bulk of the collection and noncollection items were salvaged and cleaned over the next several months. After the museum reopened, the conservators had to divide their attention between disaster recovery and conservation work for the new First Nations Gallery, which was scheduled to open next. This necessity slowed the pace of recovery work considerably. Specimens from the Life Sciences Gallery on the upper level were the last to be recovered. Thick soot had remained on these specimens for too long, and they were in generally poor condition. Their need for conservation attention was considerable, and no funds or staff remained for this stage of collection recovery. In the end most of the specimens from this gallery had to be written off.


The fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum was unique in the extensive soot damage it produced. Nevertheless, fires of any size can emit tremendous amounts of smoke within minutes before they are brought under control. This is particularly true if the fire is in a “modern room” fitted with fire-retardant polymeric materials, such as insulation, that release large amounts of soot.

Soot removal will take up the bulk of recovery time following a museum fire. Conservators at the RSM found that the degree of soot removal during the recovery stage after a disaster (when objects receive a deep cleaning) can be enhanced by the application of specific procedures and techniques during the first couple of weeks following a fire (the response stage). These procedures and techniques acknowledge the unique characteristics of soot that make the process of its removal from object surfaces more complex (see Spafford-Ricci and Graham 2000).

Soot becomes more difficult to remove over time, a fact that conservators involved in the RSM cleaning discovered from one week to the next. Soot is often acidic, as it was in the case of the RSM soot, increasing the necessity to remove it quickly. Moreover, soot agglomerations are easily broken into minute particles of soot that pigment, and become physically trapped within even the smoothest of surfaces. To be most successful, salvage of soot-covered objects should attempt to minimize pressure, disruption, and dispersion of the soot layer, all of which will tend to drive the soot farther into the surface of the object.

The RSM conservators developed effective procedures that can be implemented in the response phase (i.e., usually the first two weeks) following a fire and in the salvage of soot-covered objects.


The front lines of a disaster are a confusing and busy place, and conservators will rarely have control over all areas. Notices that caution against touching sooty surfaces should be prepared as part of the disaster contingency preparations and be ready for posting following a fire, whether it is a full-scale museum fire or a localized fire. The “don't touch” signage can state that if a sooty object is touched, the pressure will disperse the soot and embed it into the surface, thus making the object uncleanable. Although such precautions may seem obvious, few people can resist running their fingers over a fresh layer of soot. The multitude of inspectors, officials, media, and managers who will tour the site within the first few days following a disaster are in special need of this reminder.

3.2 3.2 TRIAGE

Following a fire, collections should be prioritized for salvage and conservation treatment according to the type of object and its relative sensitivity to soot damage. Objects with charred areas and structural damage are obviously the most unstable and should be given first priority. Collections can then be prioritized as follows: porous surfaces are more sensitive than nonporous surfaces, intricate surfaces are more sensitive than smooth surfaces, and organic materials are more sensitive than inorganic materials; objects can be further separated according to the degree of sootiness, with those that are less sooty often being at less risk. Objects or groups of objects thus prioritized can be recorded on a master table so that the salvage team can indicate the status of the salvage operations for each object group. This master table will aid in coordination of salvage operations, which are usually chaotic and involve a changing roster of persons working concurrently in different locations.


Vacuuming is the one active step that must take place during salvage of soot and fire-damaged materials. The highest degree of soot removal by vacuuming is possible only if an artifact is vacuumed on-site during salvage before it is touched, and certainly before it is packed and moved. Those participating in collection salvage will require disposable coveralls and a particulate mask. Portable canister vacuums such as shop vacuums or small canister vacuums should have a long length of hose complete with a crevice tool, a circular nozzle (i.e., a brush attachment with bristles cut back), and mini-attachments as required. Vacuum attachments will require frequent cleaning to decrease soot transfer. High-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter vacuums are recommended for treatment of natural history specimens.

Where possible, vacuuming should be carried out with direct use of the vacuum nozzle and without the use of a screen or brush, which may embed soot in the surface. For best results, the vacuum nozzle should not touch the surface of the object. For firm objects, it is possible to hold a crevice tool above the surface of the object propped on a finger, which is passed over an already cleaned area (fig. 9). The circular vacuum cleaner attachment (e.g., a brush attachment with bristles cut back) can also be used directly on a surface, which is then pulled upward to repeat the process in an adjacent area. To avoid dispersing a soot layer, it is essential that an object be vacuumed “as it is found”: for example, a textile that is folded should not be unfolded. Surfaces should be vacuumed first and then cleaning can proceed to inner areas and crevices. To provide for the most controlled movements, vacuuming is best done with assistance: for example, one person may hold a painting while another applies the vacuum.

Fig. 9. Vacuuming of a diorama painting using a crevice tool propped on a finger

At the RSM, vacuuming was the first step in a very effective progressive cleaning procedure for soot removal that proceeded from vacuuming to dry-surface-cleaning methods and then as needed to wet-cleaning agents.

3.4 3.4 HANDLING

Careful handling is imperative when dealing with soot-damaged artifacts because soot agglomerations can be dispersed and tiny soot particles integrated into an object's surface. Handling of sooty objects should be minimized during both the response and the recovery phases. Moving of artifacts from one location to another should, therefore, be undertaken only when necessary and only after the artifacts have received direct vacuuming. But, even after vacuuming, specific handling procedures must be followed to avoid dispersing the remaining soot. Objects should be carried “as they are” so that soot is not disturbed and dispersed into the object: for example, a folded item should not be unfolded and a stack of documents should not be separated. Direct pressure on the sooty layer should be avoided by enlisting the aid of another person in the handling process, by using handling aids such as carrying boards, and by carrying objects by auxiliary features such as by the base on a natural history specimen or by the frame on a painting.


During a fire recovery, many objects will be in temporary storage spaces awaiting cleaning. Temporary storage conditions for sooty material should be dry to avoid activation of acidic materials through moisture contact. This consideration becomes particularly important if soot-damaged objects remain in a location that is also being recovered after a disaster, since the processes of cleaning carpets, walls, etc. involve use of aqueous cleaners. A storage location should be chosen so that it is the object's permanent home while awaiting recovery, and it should be secure. The objects should be stored “as they are”: not unfolded or opened. Stacking and close wrapping for storage should be avoided so as to minimize pressure on the soot layer. If a temporary storage location is in the same building as the fire site, polyethylene film draping can be used to loosely cover the storage units, and consideration should be given to sealing off this area (including the vents) so that soot is not transferred from other areas of the building.


The RSM fire response and recovery involved complex actions for the entire building by many players and external agencies. Their roles have been examined in a previous article (Spafford and Graham 1993).

Considering the enormity of the disaster at the RSM, it is remarkable that the recovery teams were able to reestablish programs immediately, open a portion of the museum within 18 weeks, and continue, although behind schedule, with gallery renovations. However, in comparison, the rehabilitation of the collection itself was less successful. Although thousands of artifacts were salvaged and cleaned, many others were not salvaged until months after the fire, and some never did receive conservation attention. In April 1991, more than a year after the fire, the head of the cleanup committee reported that work on the recovery of the collection had come to an end: “I do not,” he wrote, “have money or staff available to complete fire clean up” (Pingert 1991, 29).

In the final analysis, it is apparent that the decisions, priorities and strategies established at the RSM within—and often determined before—the response period (the first two weeks) led to a postdisaster environment that compromised the recovery of the museum's collection. The following is an analysis of the primary factors affecting the RSM collection that may help other conservators to better prepare for a response to a fire disaster.


The museum had been under renovation for some time. Looking back, it is evident that precautions taken to ensure a proper degree of fire prevention and detection were inadequate (Baril 1990, 1991). Smoke detectors in the gallery were capped to prevent clogging or activation from renovation dust; although this is standard practice at work sites, the caps should have been removed at the end of each working day. A “fire watch” or patrol should have been provided to check the area after the contractor had finished each day. The fire and security alarm system was compromised during renovations: the fire detection system was not fully zoned and zones were only partially wired into the alarm system (which meant that the fire department had no clue where to find the fire within the building), the central air duct ionization smoke detector failed to shut down the ventilation system, and magnetic locks on the exterior and fire doors failed to release. The fire department was unable to locate the fire annunciation panel—a panel that records alarms in fire detection zones, which was to be found beneath the lobby reception desk. In addition, the fire search was hindered by the locked doors, by internal doors that locked behind the firefighters, and by a complicated, winding new gallery plan that was unfamiliar to the firefighters, who had to feel their way along the floor where the soot was less dense, carrying with them lines of hose and a limited supply of air (Usherwood 1991).

The fire-retardant materials in the gallery prevented destruction of the building. But the effects of the fire might have been further mitigated by the installation of fire detection and suppression systems designed to meet the needs of the museum rather than the minimal requirements of the Canadian building code, which are not considered adequate for museums (Baril 1991). In general, museums should have a zoned sprinkler system and a fully zoned monitored detection system that includes smoke detection in every room with collections (Baril 1989). The system should be connected directly to the fire station or to a central station, monitored 24 hours a day, that interprets alarms (such a sensitive system will have some alarms that do not require the intervention of the fire department) and alerts fire and police stations. In modern museum buildings with direct digital control of an HVAC system, it is possible to contain smoke-filled air and evacuate it from the building when a fire is detected. This system is described further by Sarah Spafford and Fiona Graham (1993).

Museum personnel should also prepare a fire preplan as part of a disaster plan. The preplan should contain floor plans and identify hazardous materials, as well as the location of the annunciation panel, hose boxes, and other features important to the fire department. The plan, which must be developed in cooperation with the fire department, could also identify collection storage areas as secondary search rooms, in order to protect them from soot infiltration during a search, and priority collections that should be saved, covered up, or protected by redirecting a fire. Firefighters (all shifts) must be given regular tours of the museum so that they are familiar with its layout (Dubois and Fletcher 1991).


The difference in the type and extent of insurance coverage for the various portions of the building and its contents was the most important factor in the prioritization of actions in the response and recovery at the RSM. The building and its furnishings were covered under private insurance, but the museum's collection and noncollection materials were self-insured. Although some funding was available for the recovery of the collection, the actual financing could not be mobilized quickly. This situation put the museum staff in a position of deference in relation to building recovery. The insurance-driven building recovery was expedited by the rapid provision of funds that allowed the scheduling and completing of tasks with confidence. In addition, the insurance-driven players were already experienced in disaster response and recovery.

Almost every article on postfire experiences in the conservation literature tells of difficulties that have arisen with respect to insurance claims. Because a disaster recovery is extremely expensive, museums will depend upon using the full extent of their insurance coverage. This arrangement places the insurance adjuster in a position of power, with the mandate to advise on the prioritization of activities in a disaster recovery. This reprioritization occurred at the RSM when the insurance adjuster noted that the building insurance might be compromised by recontamination of the building with soiled artifacts. In addition, the head of the cleanup committee was concerned that the extent of insurance coverage on the building could be affected by delaying building cleanup in favor of collection salvage and recovery (Pingert 1991). It was fortunate that, during the RSM recovery, the insurance adjuster and construction manager were prepared to do what they could to accommodate the museum collection, as long as it did not hinder the progress of building recovery, and the relationship among the parties turned out to be amicable. The landlord's project manager explained: “Theoretically the owner loses a good portion of control over the building after a disaster. The insurance agent sort of takes over the building …. He could have said that we could not move the animals into the discovery room, but had to remove all of it from the building. He could also have told us to leave all the stuff in the [Earth Sciences] gallery and not move it out into a clean room. All of this was a compromise on his part” (Arndt 1991).

The collection recovery at the RSM was underfunded and lacked adequate resources. The body or agency holding the money will ultimately wield the greatest power in a postdisaster museum recovery. Its representatives should be identified in the disaster planning process and asked to approve all plans and priorities. Without this agreement, a disaster plan will have no use in a real disaster situation. A disaster planning process should further identify whether a museum's building and contents, as well as its collection, have inequitable or incomplete insurance coverage and whether insurance coverage will be affected by compromising one recovery activity in favor of another. A particular insurance adjuster, called an “adjuster of record,” should be chosen at the disaster planning stage. The adjuster of record can then clarify the implications of insurance coverage with regard to the priorities in a disaster recovery (Paget 1991).

4.3 4.3 SECURITY

During the hectic disaster response and recovery following the RSM fire, precautions to protect the collection from theft or accidental damage were almost nonexistent. Museum staff members were too busy with recovery activities to increase their vigilance over museum material or to insist upon additional security staff. Fire inspectors, insurance adjusters, contractors, cleaners, and many other nonmuseum staff came and went out of any door at will. Manual security systems were not functioning, and it is not clear whether all of the electronic systems were functioning. Certainly in the earlier stages of the recovery, electrical wiring for security doors in the area of the fire had not yet been replaced. Although the RSM did not lose any exhibit materials or collections, other tools and supplies may have gone astray. In his postfire comments, the head of the museum cleanup committee stated, “Should such a situation arise in the future, we could certainly benefit from having an emergency security plan in place” (Pingert 1991, 31).


There were an unanticipated number of “owners” who came to play an important role in the decision-making process during the response to the fire. Like many museums in Canada, the governance and management of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum are somewhat complicated. The museum has more than one “owner” with a vested interest in the management of the facility and its operations: the museum is under the direct governance of the province of Saskatchewan; the building that houses the museum is managed by a landlord (a provincial government property management corporation); the gift shop is owned and managed by the museum associates (a membership organization); and the grounds are owned and maintained by a municipal authority.

During day-to-day operations, the balance of power and authority among these different “owners” is well understood, and the mandates of each are predictable. However, during the RSM fire, the balance of power was altered and the mandates of each group became unpredictable and somewhat divergent. Each owner had its own project manager and its own vested interest and priorities. Government officials encouraged museum management to open the building immediately, the museum staff wished to recover exhibits and collection materials, and the property owners pushed toward building cleanup and refurbishment. The property owners even feared that soiled collection objects would eventually recontaminate their clean building.

The mandates and the power of such groups as governing agencies, museum boards, membership organizations, landlords, and property managers will take on a new importance during the decision-making process that guides a disaster recovery. Therefore, the role that these “owners” will play in a disaster recovery should be examined and their priorities fully disclosed when planning for a disaster response. It is likely that their priorities—and those of the insurance adjusters—will become the overriding priorities for the process of disaster recovery. Conservators must be able to mesh effective collection salvage and recovery with these other priorities.


One of the most successful aspects of the RSM fire recovery was the insistence by management that all staff keep track of their postdisaster activities. One year after the fire, staff members were asked to write reports on their own activities, experiences, and emotions during the fire response and recovery. This collective documentation proved very useful to postfire analyses undertaken by the various parties engaged in the fire recovery.

Decisions made by RSM management with respect to disaster response for the collection were contingent upon agreement from other government managers and departments. As a result, the process of collection recovery at the RSM was hampered by outside constraints on management's ability to make quick decisions and take rapid action. Since the museum collection was self-insured by the provincial government, the process of making funds available was slow, and decision making was typical of government bureaucracy, whose processes alter little in a disaster situation. Expenditures in excess of the annual museum budget had to be approved by the highest level of government, often by a meeting of the provincial cabinet. Although the museum was promised that hiring of technical assistants would be “fast-tracked,” the process was too slow for the pace of disaster response and the first of four assistants did not begin work until a full three and a half months after the fire. Since the only precedent for this type of hiring in the past was for summer assistance, the extra staff were employed for only a four-month period.

One of the primary purposes of a disaster planning process is to identify rapid mechanisms for hiring and gathering adequate resources. The RSM experience shows that these processes should be clearly detailed and include timelines so that everyone's definition of “rapid” is the same.


After a disaster, a museum collection becomes one of the many furnishings, albeit the most important one, that has to be cleaned and repaired, and, in the midst of disaster recovery, its position cannot easily be separated from the whole recovery project. From a logistical point of view, the RSM had to face this reality head on, since most of the displays and collections were salvaged and recovered within a building that itself was being restored. It would have been impossible to remove all the objects from the museum building in the days before the building recovery began. Many objects were immobile (e.g., objects in dioramas) or too large (e.g., dinosaur skeletons) or were safer left inside display cases rather than being brought out into a sooty environment. The lack of electricity and working elevators, along with the presence of physical barriers and the harsh winter weather, slowed removal of the noncollection contents of the building. Even with an adequate disaster plan and an abundance of assistance and money, it is unrealistic to suppose that the museum staff could have removed the collection within a reasonable amount of time without jeopardizing the insurance coverage on the building and contents. One of the most significant lessons learned by the RSM conservators was the importance of having a museum fire disaster plan that takes into consideration the likelihood of overlap, and possible conflict, between the activities of object salvage and recovery and the restoration of the museum building and its fittings.

Even so, during a disaster recovery there is only so much money, time, and attention available, and it is to the conservator's advantage that noncollection concerns do not take up the bulk of these limited resources. For example, at the RSM, if the exhibit department had recorded relevant recovery details during a disaster planning process (such as how to take apart exhibit cases, what colors should be used when displays are replaced, and where to buy replacement pedestals), exhibit staff members would have had more time to participate in the recovery of their display material, thereby leaving more time for the conservators to address conservation of the collection. A significant effort was directed to researching exhibits and building renovations for structural information needed by building cleaners and contractors. Because a disaster always involves more than just a museum collection, a disaster recovery plan must include the recovery plans for the building, exhibits, and other areas, in addition to the collection, and these should be researched and written by the department in question. These plans can then be brought together to represent the entire disaster response and recovery approach.


During and after a fire, human safety is paramount. Fire officials have the legal right—and the responsibility—to close off a building for inspections until a full investigation is completed and human safety can be ensured. This authority means that salvage of objects will only begin days after a museum fire, and conservators will be forced to wait on the sidelines instead of being able to rescue artifacts. An externally imposed waiting period can give the misguided impression that the wheels are not in motion for a recovery. In fact, as conservators at the RSM learned, during the first few days following the fire, decisions were being made that would set the course for the recovery. It is important to establish conservation priorities prior to being thrust into a disaster response. After a disaster strikes, events move quickly, emotions are high, and conservation concerns can be pushed to the side.

In the day-to-day operations of a museum facility, resources and time are balanced between the care of a museum collection and accessibility to the collection through exhibits and public programming. Museums promote accessibility as part of their marketing strategy to secure funding dollars and public support. During a disaster, these priorities do not change; a museum is seen as a liability without a public face, and damaged collections can be an embarrassment that may diminish the future of the museum. In the midst of a disaster, decision makers will try to put the best face on the recovery and to show progress by restoring those areas that are easiest to rehabilitate.

It is particularly important to “strike while the iron is hot” in the recovery of collections following a disaster. During the initial stages, interest in and resources for collection recovery will be at their highest. However, it is also during this stage that pressing issues will dominate, such as relocating staff, reestablishing programs, and ensuring the structural rehabilitation of a museum building. The overwhelming priority will likely be to complete the recovery of public areas and exhibitions so that the museum can be reopened. After a fire, there may be a tendency to delay thorough cleaning of the collection, particularly since soot removal is perceived to be a lengthy and delicate process. As was the case at the RSM, soot is often perceived by decision makers to be unreactive and benign. In fact, as the recovery progressed at the RSM, conservators found that over time the soot became more difficult to remove and required more invasive methods of cleaning with stronger cleaning materials. The soot itself was slightly acidic, and the fine soot particles produced an overall pigmentation of an artifact surface that was visually unacceptable. The false perception that soot is benign has serious consequences for the condition of artifacts when it leads to delays in salvage and cleaning efforts, as it did in the RSM fire, or when it affects funds from insurance companies as reported after the Stony Brook furnace puff-back (Armstrong et al. 1981).

As the recovery at the RSM moved into its final stages, the conservators found that general interest in the disaster subsided and less could be accomplished. With less general interest, financing and labor were harder to come by and, in fact, were exhausted before collection recovery was complete. In addition, the disaster recovery itself took a toll on the collection, which had to be handled and moved to different storage locations, causing dispersion and embedding of soot layers that made soot removal more difficult.

To ensure the highest degree of success for conservation treatments, conservators involved in a fire response must take immediate action. This path of action is best accomplished if the disaster response team agrees to the immediate salvage of the collection as a priority, develops a simple set of guidelines for this salvage, and assigns a team to this project. Salvage should include direct vacuuming to remove surface soot from all affected artifacts.


Overall, the lack of a communications plan plagued the museum's ability to master the fire recovery process at the RSM (Borden 1991). Communications for the museum were normally handled through a different government department at the RSM. For this reason, the staff had little experience in communication with the public and the media, and no one was appointed to lead communications during the disaster recovery. Volunteers who wished to assist in the recovery did not know whom to speak to, media interviews and meetings with officials dominated the time of the cleanup committee, and offers of financial assistance from the public were not capitalized upon. The lack of a communications plan led to an inability to convey the grave importance of collection recovery to the public and to mobilize resources and assistance from the community.

Public relations were further hampered by the fact that the property managers restricted the amount and type of information that could be disclosed to the staff and the public. However, concern regarding future litigation proceedings placed only minor limits on communication during the recovery. The fact that the museum was self-insured resulted in looser restrictions on communications than would have been present with the involvement of a private insurance firm. Although litigation did proceed against the insulation company, these proceedings did not begin until one year after the fire and were not completed until three years later.

The disaster attracted a great deal of attention from the media, members of the public, and schoolchildren, who sent letters to the museum. Internally, communications were made more complex by the number of groups involved in the recovery. In the aftermath of the fire, the burden of external and internal communications was assumed by the head of the museum cleanup committee (the senior conservator), who could least afford the time. He later reflected: “While I was happy for the publicity and sympathy that was being generated I was also concerned about the time I was spending away from what I felt were more pressing issues.” The major difficulty, he said, was “no one really knowing what was going on …. After the first few weeks after the fire I got the impression that staff felt they were not being kept informed of what was happening …. We need a system of communication established that will allow staff to feel informed even if it is only to tell them we do not know what is happening” (Pingert 1991, 30).

It is standard in disaster planning to identify the person who will assume responsibility for communications. The RSM experience shows that this position is particularly important to the success of the collection recovery, since the public is sympathetic to the need to rehabilitate a museum's precious collections and can fuel pressure to concentrate on collection recovery. Internally, conservators must also be aware of the need to communicate the state of their recovery efforts to the museum staff and to the director of communications for the recovery.


Following the fire at the RSM, the staff conservators were given responsibility for the collection recovery operations, and the senior conservator was appointed to head the museum cleanup committee. At the beginning, the appointment was regarded by the conservation department as an opportunity to encourage conservation concerns, but as time went on it was apparent that the recovery priorities were already determined by outside pressures, and the senior conservator could do little to change the course of collection recovery. Museum management had no authority or funds to hire the extra staff needed and no control over delays caused by bureaucratic processes. Instead of being able to participate in collection recovery, the time of the senior conservator was taken up with administering the overall cleanup, researching and overseeing activities involving noncollection materials, communications and public relations, and other essential tasks. “My own work schedule was completely disrupted,” he wrote in a final report on the disaster. “Everything was put on hold while I dealt with coordinating the fire clean up. I feel I am close to a year behind with other work that had been put on hold” (Pingert 1991, 3).

The scope of a disaster recovery reaches far beyond collection conservation. Conservators should consider carefully before assuming positions that involve coordination and overall authority that will take time away from the tasks of effective salvage and recovery of the collection, particularly if the conservation department is short of staff members to handle the emergency. In the matter of authority following a disaster, the RSM conservators concluded that while there were advantages to having conservators involved in decisions affecting collections, a more effective means of ensuring collections safety is to act effectively at the disaster planning stage. Conservators need to identify the persons who will make decisions in a postdisaster situation and educate them about the priorities of conservation in a recovery. These individuals—upper management, the museum board, insurance adjusters, and so on—are in a better position to cut through red tape at a time when speed is paramount. It is easier to instill an understanding of conservation concerns before a disaster strikes than to try to change entrenched ideas in the midst of an emergency.

In the aftermath of the fire, during the recovery phase, the RSM conservators soon found that they were regarded as the “cleaning experts.” They accepted responsibility for cleaning all objects that the museum owned—not just collection artifacts but also displays and educational and research materials. In hindsight, it is clear that a more inclusive approach to salvage and recovery, involving the assistance of other staff members, would have improved the process. It would have also ensured that potential sources of assistance were not excluded and would have led to better communication and understanding of the collection recovery process on the part of nonconservation museum staff.


In addition to a slow hiring process, the RSM disaster response was plagued by a severe lack of paid labor. The hands-on collection response and recovery were carried out by the senior conservator (to the extent that he could spare the time from his other duties), the 2 full-time staff conservators, approximately 20 volunteers who worked periodic hours, and 4 full-time assistants employed over a four-month period. Because a measurable amount of labor must be put into a disaster recovery, the time recovery will take will be extended if the project is understaffed. This situation is to the detriment of collection recovery, which will take up the bulk of the total hours devoted to the restoration of the museum.

During the early part of the recovery effort, the efforts of the conservators were concentrated on organizing and cleaning noncollection material such as display and replica objects. For a disaster plan to be effective, as many workers as possible should be made available for postfire salvage and recovery. A disaster plan should identify different types of museum materials (for example, replicas, diorama backdrops, deaccessioned material used in educational programs and research materials) that are museum assets and should be cleaned carefully but do not require the labor of a conservator. Cleaning of this material could be undertaken by commercial cleaners or by a crew of staff, volunteers, or technicians in liaison with a conservator. To adequately plan a response to a fire, simple salvage techniques must be clearly laid out at the planning stage, and a team of trained personnel should be identified for salvage of the collections. RSM conservators found that initial soot removal at the salvage stage did not always have to be carried out by conservators but could be handled by others with a basic knowledge in care and handling of artifacts and the ability to follow specific instruction on the techniques used in salvage of soot-covered objects. The conservators concluded that the most important determining factor in the success of soot removal from a given object was whether it had received direct vacuuming as soon as possible after the fire. This vacuuming adds extra time to a salvage process, and a sufficient number of persons must be set aside for this activity.

During collection recovery after a disaster, it is the assumption of most conservators that the objects in most urgent need of soot removal will be the first to receive in-depth cleaning. The RSM conservators found that, in practice, this sequence may not always be possible, and conservators may be asked instead to concentrate their efforts on objects that are easier to clean and place back on display. It is recommended that the safety of a collection can best be served by planning for the possibility of two cleaning teams that would work concurrently—one team would clean those objects that are designated as the priority by the curators and other decision makers, and the other would work on the recovery of objects that are identified on the basis of conservation criteria during triage.


The fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, severe as it was, could have resulted in even greater damage. Several factors mitigated the effects of the disaster. Because of a lack of space in the museum building, some of the collection had been stored off-site in the Museum Annex, and this situation turned out to be a blessing as it spared some of the most sensitive artifacts in the collection. Flame-retardant material used in the construction of the First Nations Gallery slowed the spread of flames and helped prevent further damage and loss of the building itself. Although the conservators had been told in disaster planning workshops that fire departments tended to fight fires with an almost blatant disregard for property, in this case the firefighters were very sensitive to the nature of the building's contents, and the museum found no evidence of damage to any area outside of the fire site due to the fire search and firefighting efforts. There were no objects in the fire-ravaged First Nations Gallery because the gallery was in an early construction phase and conservators had insisted on having paper replicas in place rather than the actual artifacts to determine the way they fit into cases. Finally, the alarm system, such as it was, automatically alerted the fire department and saved the museum from much greater loss.

Nevertheless, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum experienced massive losses during the 1990 fire. Costs of the fire came to C$2 million, and an additional C$4 million were needed for development of a new Life Sciences Gallery, the old gallery being unrecoverable after the soot damage. The museum was completely closed for four months and six days and, in 2000, it is still only partially opened. Gallery development was pushed a total of nine years behind schedule. In addition, there were many undetermined losses, such as rent on the closed building, forgone tourist dollars and gift shop sales, as well as the expense of salaries and diverted staff time. Perhaps most important of all were a loss of public image, the diminishing of the quality of the collection, and the complete loss of some collection materials.

The fire response and recovery at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum could have been much different if the museum had carried out disaster planning. No discussions on disaster planning had taken place, so the museum management and staff were not prepared either psychologically or physically for the fire disaster. More important, they were unprepared relative to the other players involved in the fire recovery. This lack of preparation had a direct effect on the success of the collection recovery and the long-term preservation of the museum's collections. As Ron Borden, then the director of the RSM, told the annual meeting of the Canadian Museums Association: “The most important thing learned is that we were totally unprepared for this emergency. We lacked an effective and well-conceived emergency/disaster plan, a pre-designed strategy ready to be implemented. There wasn't time or clarity of thought to start developing a plan once the fire had happened. There was too much happening all at once, too much to think about, too many demands. This resulted in greatly added stress and pressure, similar to traveling over unfamiliar territory without road signs or a map. We found out that it could be done but having a map with clear directions would have made it a lot easier” (Borden 1991, 7).

Museums must prepare a disaster plan that deals specifically with the issues associated with a fire:

  1. The plan must outline prevention of a fire disaster through activities such as providing a fire watch during construction and ensuring that fire detection and suppression systems are adequate for the special needs of the museum. The plan should be produced in cooperation with fire department personnel, who should be provided with regularly scheduled tours of the museum and a layout of the building delineating areas of importance to firefighters.
  2. Representatives of groups or agencies responsible for providing resources and funds for the costs of recovery must be identified and asked to approve all plans and priorities. Insurance coverage must be thoroughly reviewed with respect to extent of coverage for various areas of the museum's operations. An adjuster of record should be selected at the disaster planning stage and asked to clarify the implications of insurance coverage.
  3. Special provision must be made for security during the response and recovery period, especially in view of the disruption of normal security procedures and the increased risk to valuable—and often irreplaceable—artifacts.
  4. The plan should identify the various “owners” or primary stakeholders who will be involved in the response and recovery phases. Their roles and priorities should be fully disclosed.
  5. The plan should clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of museum management and staff and all those who are likely to participate in the response and recovery phases, including outside companies and trades, museum personnel, volunteers, and temporary staff. The disaster planning process should identify rapid mechanisms for hiring and gathering of resources. Requisite documentation by staff of postdisaster activities should be noted in a disaster plan.
  6. The plan should include recovery plans for the building, exhibits, and other areas, drawn up by the departments concerned.
  7. The plan should identify the major stages following a fire disaster (an outline of events that will occur in the initial response phase, which includes triage and salvage, and the later recovery phase) and set out a list of priorities. The salvage of the collection must be marked for early attention.
  8. The plan should emphasize the critical importance of effective external and internal communications during the aftermath of a fire disaster. It should further provide for a communications officer to organize internal communications, coordinate incoming offers of aid, and work with the media, gallery members and volunteers, and the public in general.
  9. Conservators have the largest impact on collection safety during the preparation of the disaster plan and should participate actively in its development. The role of conservation must be clearly defined, particularly in relation to the recovery of the collection. Depending on the availability of conservation assistance, the plan may provide for the organization of two response and recovery teams, one to clean objects designated by curators and other decision makers, and the other to work on objects identified on the basis of conservation criteria during triage.
  10. The plan should include a list of specific procedures and guidelines to be followed in the early response to sooty objects: posting a warning sign at disaster sites, prioritizing collection objects for treatment, communicating special handling techniques, setting up appropriate temporary storage areas, and initial vacuuming to prepare the objects for later treatment during the recovery phase.

It is important to emphasize that disaster contingency planning must take place in the context of a museum's overall operations. It is only by creating a document that addresses the complex interplay of all facets of a museum recovery—operations, building, museum materials, displays, and the collection—that the position of the collection within a disaster plan can be secured. With priorities clearly defined and an overall plan for museum recovery in place, conservators will be assured that procedures and techniques laid out for the effective salvage and recovery of a fire-ravaged museum collection can be put into action during a real disaster situation.


The authors would like to thank Ron Borden, the director of the RSM at the time of the fire, for allowing us to share candid accounts of postfire activities for the benefit of the greater museum community. The authors would also like to acknowledge Ron Borden and the current director, David Baron, for their outstanding leadership in the complete rehabilitation of the museum and its operations following the fire. Finally, the authors would like to offer their indebtedness to the late Don Pingert, former senior conservator, who led the fire recovery at the museum with the same skill and diligence that marked his 30-plus years of unwavering dedication to collections care at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.


Armstrong, J. G., D. G.Dowd, M. V.Pike, and S.Stitt. 1981. A furnace puff-back: The unique problem of soot on objects and costumes. AIC preprints, American Institute for Conservation 9th Annual Meeting, Philadelphia. Washington, D.C.: AIC. 10–19.

Arndt, H.1991. Personal interview. Saskatchewan Property Management Corporation, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Baril, P.1989. How to train the curator on sprinklers. Heritage Services Division, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Baril, P.1990. Museum fire prevention programs. Heritage Services Division, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Baril, P.1991. Personal communication. Heritage Services Division, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Borden, R.1991. Royal Saskatchewan Museum: February 16, 1990, fire. Paper presented at the Canadian Museums Association Annual Meeting, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Dubois, L., and E.Fletcher. 1991. Personal interview. Regina Fire Department, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Paget, C.1991. Personal interview. Clay Paget General Insurance Adjusters Ltd., Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Pingert, D.1991. Postfire notes. Regina, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Spafford, S., and F.Graham. 1993. Fire recovery at the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History. Part 1, Description of events and analysis of recovery. ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints, 10th Triennial Meeting, Washington, D.C. Paris: ICOM. 1:413–19.

Spafford-Ricci, S., and F.Graham. 2000. The fire at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Part 2: Removal of soot from artifacts and recovery of the building. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation39: 37–56.

Usherwood, G.1991. Personal interview. Regina Fire Department, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.


SARAH SPAFFORD-RICCI received a B.Sc. from the University of Saskatchewan in 1984 and a master of art conservation from Queen's University in 1986. She was conservator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum from 1987 to 1991 and then was conservator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, until 1997. She has studied and worked in conservation laboratories of the Glenbow Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada. In 1998, she entered into partnership in a private conservation laboratory, Fraser Spafford Ricci Art and Archival Conservation Inc. in South Surrey, Canada. Address: 2276 134th St., South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada V4A 9T9; e-mail: sarah@fsrconservation.com

FIONA GRAHAM received a B.A. (Honors) in 1987 and a master's degree in conservation from Queen's University in 1989. She participated in fire recovery during a one-year position at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. She has worked as a conservator for the Mus�e de Beaux-Arts de Montr�al, the Centre de Conservation du Quebec, and the National Gallery of Canada, among others. From 1992 to 1997, she served as collections preservation adviser for the Heritage Services Division, Canadian Conservation Institute. She is currently conservation adviser for the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation in Toronto, Canada. Address: Heritage and Libraries Branch, Cultural Programs Branch, Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, Government of Ontario, 400 University Ave., 4th Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M7A 2R9; e-mail: fiona.graham@mczcr.gov.on.ca

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