Volume 16, Number 1, Jan. 1994, p.10

November Fires in Southern California: The J. Paul Getty Museum's Response

by Brian B. Considine

The fire was reported to the authorities at 9:30 am on Tuesday, November 2; within an hour, there was a very large plume of smoke rising above the Santa Monica Mountains, but it was not visible from the J. Paul Getty Museum until about 11:00 am. By noon, the danger of the fire spreading as far as the Museum was clear and we began to consider evacuating the Ranch House Labs. Interestingly, this very exercise had been the focus of last year's Emergency Drill, so we were repeating a procedure that we had already done and critiqued.

By 1:00 pm, the Registrar's Office had assigned a staff member to each lab and they came with their lists of the objects in each of the labs. We first verified these lists and then began wrapping wooden objects in plastic (because of the Santa Ana winds, we were worried about subjecting the objects to the very low relative humidity). The smaller objects were put in bins that the Preparators were bringing to us. With a member of the Registrar's staff checking objects at the door, we began moving small objects in the many staff members' Volvo wagons. The larger objects were moved by the Preparators in the Museum's vans and truck. There were also teams from the Registrar's office and the Curatorial departments checking the objects into the storerooms in the basement and seeing that they were being stored safely.

By late afternoon, the last of the art had been moved and we then decided to move the object treatment files, which involved considerable effort. They were taken to the library. One mistake we made was not noting the first and last accession number from each bookcase. At about 4:30 pm the fire captain drive through the property and asked us to remove all the canisters of compressed gas, so they were gathered at the fountain. We first planned to truck them to a Museum warehouse in Santa Monica, but we were reluctant to do this, knowing that the truck would never be allowed back to the Museum. We ultimately decided to empty the tanks and to remove the valves. The fire department had no instructions about the solvents.

We then turned our attention to the Museum's HVAC system. We were concerned about smoke infiltrating the building and damaging the one entrance to the building. We were, of course, concerned that if we shut down the intake of outside air, we would lose the humidification. We decided to leave the HVAC system operational until we saw particulate coming through the system and into the galleries. We knew that even if we shut the system down, that the building would hold the RH constant for 24 hours and that the rise would only be gradual after that. Fortunately, we never had the particulate, or even the smell of smoke, in the galleries.

The only movement of art within the Museum was the return of the drawings and manuscripts that were on display to the storerooms. This was done because it represented only about an hour's work and it was felt to be a worthwhile precaution.

After these tasks had been accomplished, everyone except the Security, Grounds, and Engineering staff left the Museum until Friday, when we returned everything to its previous locations.

We were greatly reassured during the ordeal by the great efforts of many people, by the very close cooperation between the Fire Department and our Head of Security, and by our confidence in the incombustibility of the Museum building. The importance of having and practicing an Emergency Plan was once again proven beyond any doubt.

Brian B. Considine
Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Malibu, California

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