Volume 10, Number 1, Jan. 1988, pp.7-8
On December 15, 1987, The Chaffey Communities Cultural Center in Upland, California, suffered a fire which damaged a large part of its collection. The small historical museum housed an eclectic collection of Native American baskets and pottery, dolls, books, photographs, costumes, silver, tools, clocks, and photographic equipment. Much of the collection, which interprets local history and artifacts that relate to people who lived or are still living in the area, is contained in photographs and clippings albums which were fortunately not damaged by the fire. After the fire, Lynn Merrill, the curator of the center, contacted the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museums, requesting help.
Conservators from both LACMA and the Getty responded. Based on a description of the nature of the collection, Linda Strauss, Assistant Conservator, Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation, organized a team of conservators from the Getty and GCI. The conservators who participated in the initial salvage effort were: Linda Strauss; Brian Considine, also from Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation; and J. Claire Dean, representing Antiquities Conservation, from the Getty Museum; Benita Johnson, from the Getty Conservation Institute, and Anne Howatt-Krahn, visiting from Canada, both Ethnographic Conservators. Steve Cristin-Poucher, Head of Objects Conservation, and David Rasch, both from Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also responded to the call for help.
The morning after the fire, the conservators arrived--the Getty group equipped with hard hats and emergency supplies. Most of the collection had been removed by the firefighters the previous day and stored in the city yard. The first step was to take documentary photographs of the exterior and interior and to establish priorities for the day's work. Lynn Merrill expressed greatest concern for the Indian artifacts that had been located in a showcase in the area most extensively damaged by the fire. He was also concerned about the condition of several oriental rugs which were waterlogged and covered with debris.
The salvage procedure involved picking through the rubble of broken glass, charred wood, and a black mush of soot and water. As items were recovered, they were rinsed, as they were already waterlogged, under the assumption that they would be treated better if they were recognizable as objects. Tables were covered with plastic and the organic artifacts were spread out, interleaved with paper towels where necessary, to dry slowly under loosely draped plastic. Objects that could be safely wiped dry were dried with paper towels. Disposable aluminum baking pans were used to sort fragments and polyethylene bags were used to store them. Anything which needed a warm, dry environment or was considered too valuable to be left in the unsecured building was removed to the caretaker's house. The oriental carpets were swept of the major portion of the debris, rolled and removed to the driveway. There they were rinsed with water until they returned to an approximation of their normal color.
Stan Derelian, private Tapestry and Rug Conservator, and Glenn Wharton, private Objects Conservator, consulted on-site a few days later. Glenn reported on further emergency work that was needed and wrote guidelines for the conservation measures for various materials affected. Of the six carpets surveyed and treated by Stan Derelian, five sustained some damage from burns or smoke. The five carpets were further cleaned on the site with water and Triton-X, then raised off of the ground to air dry on 2" x 2" wire mesh.
Of the carpets treated on site, only one, a 19th Century Persian Heriz carpet justifies further treatment and repair. The one carpet that escaped significant damage was a fragment of an 18th Century Spanish pile carpet, 3' 8" x 7' 6", which was cleaned with water and Triton-X in Mr. Derelian's workshop.
The next week, Rosanna Zubiate, Textile Conservator at LACMA, and Terri Schindel, an intern at LACMA from the Conservation Graduate Program at Hampton Court Palace, England, went to examine an 1860's American Flag. When they asked about costumes in the collection, they were shown a room full of damp costumes hanging on wire hangers. With Linda's help, the collection was sorted into two groups; those that could be commercially dry cleaned safely and those that required conservation. 62 costumes were taken to LACMA for treatment. The "wet" end of the Textile Conservation lab was blocked off and, with all available air extraction in use, the costumes were vacuumed and air dried. In spite of the exhaust system, the smell of smoke was quite intense, even some distance down the hall.
Beginning on the first day and throughout the conservation process, personnel at the Cultural Center have been given consistent advice on what to do and how to proceed with the restoration of the collection. All of the conservators involved have stressed the need for proper storage for the collection after the restoration is completed. Conservators have discussed fundraising, a summer work project, and establishing supervised volunteer programs, all as ways for a small, under-funded institution to cope with disaster. Collections management and issues of registration, valuation, and defining a collections policy, even retroactively, have been stressed in these discussions, in addition to the more obvious conservation role of how to care for what was damaged.
The Cultural Center, a converted church, was seriously damaged only at one end and will most probably be rebuilt. It will need a new roof and extensive cleaning to remove the smoke damage. There was insurance to cover the building but not the collection. It will take a major volunteer effort to clean and repair the collection but it should be possible to mount an exhibit afterward, even without the portion of the collection which is not salvageable. A surprisingly large number of artifacts were rescued the first day from what had appeared to be nothing more than a pile of black mush covered with broken glass and charred timber.
As of 28 January 1988, a suitable temporary home for the collection has still not been located. The ongoing efforts to conserve the collection will be coordinated by Glenn Wharton. For more information, please contact him at (213) 451-0442.Glenn Wharton, Private Practice