Volume 13, Number 3, Sept 1991, pp.13-19, 7 line drawings, 2 reduced record-keeping forms

Seismic Disaster Planning: Preventive Measures Make a Difference

by Elisabeth Cornu and Lesley Bone

Working with museum collections on the West Coast, we have always been conscious of the potential damage to art by earthquakes, but the October 1989 quake revealed some flaws in our preparedness. While our storage rooms and most exhibition spaces had been well strengthened against seismic disaster, a number of our top-heavy sculptures, furniture and objects fell, and, in addition, we all agreed that we could have prepared our staff better to handle the aftermath.

Since then, we have made strides in upgrading seismic readiness and protection measures for the building, the collection, and the museum staff. Since earthquakes continue to happen, we would like to share some of our methods and insights in the hope of getting other museums started on the path to earthquake preparedness.

The Building

  1. Become familiar with the area in which your building is located. The U.S. Geological Survey Office publishes three overlay maps that show soil type and ground movement expectations in your area. Check for reservoirs, flood tables and ground motion, as they may affect your building during a quake.
  2. Get to know your building. Be aware of different phases of construction--some original areas may be much stronger than later additions to the building. A structural engineer can point out areas of potential hazard and structural weakness. Seismic studies can be commissioned to point out the type and strength of movement likely during a quake. Be aware of overhead light tracks, water pipes, heating pipes, and ducts. This will help you plan your exhibits in a safe way. For example, large top-heavy sculptures may not be placed in an area with considerable ground movement, and no art objects should be placed underneath hidden overhead water pipes.
  3. Check the foundations of the building. Make certain that the building is well anchored and that termite damage has been taken care of. It is not cost effective to spend money on special object mounts if the building is likely to fall.
  4. Emergency systems such as fire extinguishers, fire alarms, sprinklers and security systems should be regularly maintained and tested. A dry pipe sprinkler system is preferable in a seismically active zone. Battery-operated back-up lights are essential in people zones, and the batteries must be regularly checked. In the conservation laboratories, we have installed small plug-in back-up lights which light up nightly when the overhead lights are out and which hold a charge if the electricity goes out.
  5. Insure that all exits are clearly marked, and that emergency doors get tested regularly so that they are known to open in an emergency. We have applied glow-in-the-dark tape to protruding edges and doors in our lab space to facilitate safely exiting the building during an emergency.
  6. If you have an installation shop or conservation facility, cut down on the amounts of solvents stored there. Place a lay-out sketch at the entrance of the facility showing the locations of solvents and chemicals stored to help fire and emergency crews locate potential hazards. Solvents should be stored in special cupboards for flammable materials, and these should be securely bolted to floors, walls and/or ceilings. Solvents in use should only be in small bottles securely stowed on countertops in retaining trays or behind a barrier.
  7. Stabilize all shelving racks, cabinets, and bookshelves (in storage, offices and work facilities) by attaching them to the walls, floor and/or ceiling with L-brackets. Make sure that the screws are strong and sufficiently long and, if possible, attach them to structural elements.

    The Staff

  8. TRAINING: It is important that every staff member knows what is expected during an emergency; this not only is reassuring but limits confusion. A plan for what personnel will do in a disaster is based on a tree-model command structure where each person lets a certain other know what is wrong, but decisions and directions originate at the top and are conveyed down to avoid confusion. Emergency coordinators are appointed ahead of time; they are the ones who will give instructions when an earthquake occurs and who will coordinate the rescue effort. The tree-model command structure should be flexible--it is better to base it on positions within the organization rather than on specific persons. Make certain to include assignments for who will deal with the outside world, with trustees, with the press, and with disaster recovery organizations in case of a quake.

    For larger buildings, it is suggested that the building be divided into zones. Each zone might have two persons appointed as zone monitors who will take control of their areas during an emergency. Zone monitors learn to clear the building, learn to assess preliminary objects damage, and report to the chain of command. Zone monitors should be continually trained in CPR, first aid, use of fire extinguishers and evacuation procedures. Stage periodic earthquake and fire drills to iron out potential problems in the zone monitor and command system. Organize a phone tree so that all staff can be reached in a short period of time and be apprised of what to do in case an earthquake occurs during off-hours--a likely scenario.

  9. Emergency Supplies: Electricity can be irregular or fail after an earthquake; therefore, an emergency generator and supply of gasoline to run it should be stored in a safe location. Emergency cabinets with vital supplies and tools--see Appendix I-- should be placed in strategic places throughout the building. Because keys get lost easily, the cabinets should be taped shut. Areas where people work should have flashlights and batteries which should be maintained regularly. The institution should keep an emergency cash supply for immediate expenses; food and water may also be needed.
  10. AFTERMATH OF A DISASTER: After a disaster, resist the temptation to rush in and sweep everything up. Go through the following steps instead:

    a. Cordon off the damage areas and designate them off-limits to everyone.

    b. Documentation is of primary importance when dealing with insurance companies and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Try to have the damaged museum objects well documented, photographed and appraised with current valuations. Photodocument damage and disrupted settings, but also photograph undamaged situations--it is important for the insurance companies to know that many preventive measures worked. If you do not have cameras and film on hand, urge your staff to bring in theirs. Videotape everything, if possible.

    c. Secure anything that is in imminent danger of falling in an aftershock. This may mean stabilizing objects with sandbags, or transporting objects to a safe location.

    d. Fill out the damage reports--a sample form is shown in Appendix II.

    e. Pick up all loose pieces, label them and take them to a safe area with the damaged objects--this area will serve as a casualty ward where conservators can fill out detailed condition reports and treatment proposals, and where insurance assessors can see all the objects in one place.

    f. Keep detailed time sheets of all your rescue efforts. The insurance companies and FEMA will require an hour-by-hour justification of how your staff time was spent during rescue.

    The Collection Objects

    Here are some suggestions for anchoring objects to provide better seismic security:

  11. Storage Areas: Make certain that all your storage units are cross-braced and anchored securely to walls, floor and ceiling. If possible, they should have doors made out of plexiglass or auto safety glass, or wood. Be sure that the anchoring bolts are of sufficient size and strength (1/2-inch bolts into cement are too short). Provide simple L-brackets at bottom and top of shelving units to keep them from swinging out. A technical note in the September 1990 WAAC Newsletter (by Julie Creahan and Lori van Handel, p.24) has given some additional good hints on how to improve seismic protection in museum storage.

     [Apparatus] figure 2.
    Ethafoam with recesses for storing individual objects. Receiving holes for art objects are cut into the upper block of 2-inch-thick ethafoam using a drill press. A sheet of 1/4-inch ethafoam is glued to the block with recesses. The whole unit is sized to fit a shelf.

    Store objects in padded trays (we use gatorfoam trays lined with ethafoam) or in individually-made holders or carved out shapes in 2-inch thick ethafoam. We hot-glue ethafoam holders for individual objects to their tray (see Figure 2). Across the openings of the shelving units, fit nylon cords/nylon webbing to catch objects in case they slide outward during a quake. Nylon webbing can be purchased from companies supplying handtrucks (such as California Caster and Handtruck Co., San Francisco, 415/982-8750). Bungee cords could be used but should be of short length only, otherwise they will not be strong enough to retain heavy objects.

    Place all freestanding sculptures, furniture objects or other large objects near a storage rack or on a wooden pallet; pad such objects out at the point of contact and secure them with nylon straps to the rack or to hooks in the wall. Do not place loose objects onto furniture; they can fall. Use common sense.

    Grant money to upgrade storage rooms is available from NEA (the National Endowment for the Arts) and IMS (Institute for Museum Services).

  12. Paintings/Flat Works Exhibited on Walls: Avoid hanging paintings or flat works from vertical wires. Use screw eyes or proper painting hooks. Anchor receiving hooks into the wall, and bend the receiving hooks slightly upward to prevent the work of art from jumping out of its hanging hooks during an earthquake. If possible secure a brass mirror plate to the bottom of the frame and screw that into the wall. If painted the color of the wall, it becomes nearly invisible and also serves as a security measure against theft.
  13. Small Objects in Exhibition Cases: As much as possible, exhibit small objects in plexiglass cases or under plexiglass vitrines--these not only protect the objects from dropping off their exhibition pedestals during an earthquake but protect them from falling overhead debris: lamps, tiles, ducts or water.

     [Apparatus] Figure 1.
    An idealized case for exhibiting small artifacts.

    The exhibition cases should either be secured to the floor or heavily weighted with lead weights or sandbags (see Figure 1 for a sketch of an idealized exhibit case).

    Anchor exhibition decks and risers onto the case, and then hold the object down with:

  14. Large Sculptures and Objects Exhibited on Pedestals: Secure the pedestal in a manner similar to that used for exhibition cases (see 13.), but do not screw down onto the floor. It is important to counterweight the inside of the pedestal with weight equivalent to that of what is exhibited above--this will lower the center of gravity (see Figure 6). Mylar sheets, plexiglass or pieces of teflon can be applied to the corner bottoms of the pedestal. Tests have shown that the pedestals will slide around the floor if they are not screwed down, and that this is better for the art affixed to them.

     [Illustration] Figure 6.
    Support for sculptures and large objects on pedestals.

    To anchor sculpture or heavy objects onto the pedestals, fashion individual mounts. Consult with an experienced mount maker and/or a structural engineer before guessing how and where the object should be held down. There is a way to calculate the center of gravity of the object, its approximate stability, its mass and weight. A good pedestal and mount should take all three into consideration.

    Under an IMS grant, we are learning how to build better internal mounts for our bronzes and marble busts. We are also learning about "base isolation systems" which let objects and their pedestals vibrate independent from the building motion caused by an earthquake. We will report our findings at a future time when studies are complete.

    What we have learned so far is that guessed-at flexible mounting systems (using flexing wires or monofilament), or base isolation systems without the help of a qualified structural engineer, can cause more harm than good--such systems often cause the object to vibrate more in a quake. While several companies manufacture such systems for computers and hospital equipment, they must be designed for situations and objects specifically. The design should be tested on a vertical/horizontal shake table. For further information, obtain a copy of Evaluation of Seismic Mitigation Measures for Art Objects, published by the Getty Conservation Institute, 4503 Glencoe Avenue, Marina del Rey, California 90292.

  15. Furniture Objects, Other Large Objects: Make metal support systems for these pieces which then also attach to the wall behind the piece (see Figure 7). Always protect the area of contact between the support and the art object with ethafoam or felt. Such support systems may consist of welded rods, iron brackets or brass mounts, following the carcass or the legs of a piece of furniture and supporting it at the major structural points. They should secure the artwork from "swinging out" and should be attached at its strong points, not at legs or protruding sections.

     [Illustration] Figure 7.Two methods to support furniture or other freestanding collection objects.
    Method 1: Padded Brackets Top and Bottom.

    Method 2: Aluminum or Wooden "Template" Supports Clock from the Rear.

    Pay attention to furniture or artworks made of more than one part; for example, a furniture highboy. You may secure the top and bottom of the artwork, but the middle may swing out. Or, alternatively, if held in place too rigidly, the shelves of a piece of furniture may fall out because the top and bottom cannot move but the center can bulge. Consult an engineer when securing complicated pieces. 16. Art in Transit or being Worked on: It is important to remember to secure art objects in transit between galleries and storage, or in the conservation lab or photography lab, or packer's workshop. Use lipped trays and carts, padded boxes, wedges, or sandbags placed underneath sculptures, or tie art objects to the wall or a strong work table. Secure art objects not only for overnight protection, but while you work with them-- an earthquake can happen when you least expect it.

We welcome readers' remarks and questions, and we hope that you and your institution will share your own seismic protection findings.

Elisabeth Cornu and Lesley Bone
The de Young Objects Conservation Laboratory
M. 1. de Young Memorial Museum
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA 94118 415/750-3649

Appendix I:

Supplies an Emergency Cabinet Should Contain



leather gloves
hard hats

broken glass/fallen debris

crow bars
pry axes
bolt cutters
non-spark shovels

jammed doorways/blocked passages

escape ladder

blocked stairwells

AM/FM battery powered radio
2-way CB radio
spare batteries


generator and gasoline
portable lights
extension cords
emergency lighting, especially in basements

power outage

pipe crescent wrench

gas mains shut-off

first aid kit
appropriate masks for solvent spills

personnel protection

dimensional lumber

support fallen areas



video camera

padding material
bubble pack
strapping tape
ethafoam sheets

polyethylene bags, various sizes

marker pens

padded push cart


damage report forms

screw drivers that open all cases

Appendix II:

Sample Damage Report Form

In the printed version of this article, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's "Damage Report Form" and "Procedures" list is reproduced in reduced size. The following is an approximate rendering of that reproduction

Museums OF




FAM # _______


Title/object name:

















What happened:




Who found it:








WHAT IMMEDIATE STEPS WERE TAKEN (Object moved? Pieces gathered? Preventive action?)




WHO WAS NOTIFIED (Registrar, conservator, curator, administrator, owner/agent):









WHO FILLED OUT THIS REPORT __________________________________________DATE_______________



1. The immediate need is the protection and care of the object. Seek the advice of conservation for the best action to take.

2. After the object is secured, and at the earliest opportunity, fill out a Damage Report Form
[Item 6 will be filled out by a Conservator.]

Send the form to Registration as soon as possible. [We prefer to receive Reports from several participating individuals rather than no Report at all.
Please do not assume some else is making the report.]

3. Registration will notify the Chief Curator, Department Curators, the Administration, and anyone else not already notified.

Registrars will keep all Report Forms and will issue periodic summaries to the Adminstration and to Security, as appropriate.

THANK YOU for your assistance and care.

Appendix III:

Use of Wax to Hold Artifacts in Place

To Apply Dental (Surgical) Wax:

Roll wax into very small balls (less than pea size). Each vessel takes approximately 3 balls on the lower edge. Apply to artifact with a thin spatula, or by hand, and push down at once. Wax can also be used with plexiglass mounts--to attach the mount onto a shelf, and to hold the ceramic artifact onto the mount.

To apply ceramics onto furniture: be careful with French-polished surfaces. Apply a thin coat of paste wax onto the furniture surface first.

Be careful when using wax with low-fired and painted ceramics; the surface may detach.

To Remove Wax:

Do not lift the object straight up. Twist the object free; remove excess wax with a sharpened wooden stick (a coffee stirrer is ideal). Remove excess wax with petroleum naphtha or mineral spirits.

Obtaining the Wax:

This product is identified as Large Utility Wax Strips, White, Healthco P/N HCOW030201, and comes 60 strips (11 inches long, 3/16 inch diameter) to a box with the following price break-down per box: 1-5 boxes, $6.50; 6-11 boxes, $5.95; 12+ boxes, $5.50. It can be ordered from Healthco International, Inc./30689 Huntwood Avenue/Hayward, California 94540, or it can be purchased at a medical supply store.

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