Usability and maintenance of priority lists: a response to the Christchurch earthquakes

Christchurch Art Gallery foyer CCTV footage taken at the time the earthquake struck on 22 February 2011.

Since September 2010, Christchurch has experienced over 10,000 earthquakes. The earthquake that hit the city on the 22 February 2011 was by far, the most damaging of all events. And while I won’t go so far as to say the earthquakes have been a blessing in disguise, I do believe every cloud has a silver lining.

Had we not been through this experience, the shortcomings of Christchurch Art Gallery’s disaster plan would not be known. Experiential learning has its benefits as demonstrated in a better plan, better processes, and better documentation that considered firsthand experience.

Since September 2010, Christchurch has experienced over 10,000 earthquakes. The earthquake that hit the city on the 22 February 2011 was by far, the most damaging of all events. And while I won’t go so far as to say the earthquakes have been a blessing in disguise, I do believe every cloud has a silver lining. Had we not been through this experience, the shortcomings of Christchurch Art Gallery’s disaster plan would not be known. Experiential learning has its benefits as demonstrated in a better plan, better processes, and better documentation that considered firsthand experience.

There is no ignoring that horrendous day in February last year. As soon as the shaking stopped, staff and visitors were immediately evacuated from the Gallery. Re-entry was off the cards while we waited for engineers to assess the building, and with significant aftershocks occurring only minutes after the main shake, it made sense to stay outside. From speaking with Visitor Hosts, we had a fair idea as to what damage had occurred in the galleries, but the status of back of house storage areas was relatively unknown. There was very little we could do but trust that preventative measures in place, had worked.

As the severity of the situation became increasingly apparent, priorities changed. A few blocks away, buildings had collapsed, killing and trapping occupants. The collection became secondary to other concerns, namely accounting for family and friends, and assessing damage to our homes. I think it is fair to say that those of us who care for collections felt incredibly compromised as we gathered at the evacuation point, confused and in shock, considering our next move. It was difficult to know whether we should stay and wait for the all-clear to check storage, or leave.

Engineers checked the building, but not for the purpose of collection assessment or re-entry by Gallery staff. Within an hour after the quake, Civil Defence arrived at the Gallery ready to establish the emergency response centre. This was nothing new. The Gallery had always been the backup Civil Defence headquarters, and when their primary base suffered damage in the September earthquake, they resorted to plan B. We had a fair idea which areas they would occupy: the foyer, under the stairs, offices, the staff room, and then, much to our horror, they occupied the galleries. In most instances Civil Defence waited for Gallery staff to deinstall works, but not always.

The Gallery found itself within a cordon, accessible only to those authorised by Civil Defence. For all intents and purposes, Gallery staff were advised to stay away. And we did, with the exception of Management who needed to ensure building services were functioning for the purpose of Civil Defence activities.

In many respects, the occupation of the Gallery by Civil Defence was a double-edged sword: their presence, while necessary, was disruptive to our recovery but had the Gallery not found itself host to the emergency response team, the building, including storage, would have been strictly off-limits, even to Management.

It would be almost a fortnight before the majority of staff returned to work, and in the week or so following the earthquake, a lot had happened.

In the early hours of the 23 February, the New Zealand Army removed the Andrew Drummond sculpture suspended from the foyer roof, damaging it in the process. The work was left lying in the foyer, without protection, where it was further damaged. When Gallery staff returned to work, it was being used as a bench.

The plant room had sprung a leak, and flooded the small objects and framed works on paper store. The Building Manager was present and, with the assistance of two senior colleagues, mopped up the water. The objects that could sustain water damage were left in their boxes, wet as found. We later salvaged the wet works and, while mould had started to grow on boxes, we reported no damage to the works as a result of the flood.

Exhibitions had been deinstalled by Gallery staff to make way for the expansion of Civil Defence operations. Works they could not deinstall with limited resources were stanchioned and left in place. Back of house, a number of works were relocated from one store to an alternative location with seemingly no rationale and minimal documentation. The inventory and return to storage of these works took several weeks to complete.

Twelve works out of a collection of six and a half thousand plus items were damaged and were mostly objects on display, notably ceramics that broke free of pins and quake wax.

In the months after the earthquake, Registration and other staff engaged in an earthquake debrief. It was a difficult process, but a necessary evil. As a result of this debrief and subsequent reviews, a great deal has changed. So much so that I could dedicate a paper to seismic resistant display and storage systems, drip diverters, spill kits, building manuals, mobile alerts… the list goes on. But the greatest improvement has been the collective approach to disaster planning, and the development of a better plan that has institutional buy-in.

One focus for Registration has been a rethink of the priority list, starting with a review of the methodology with input from conservators and curators. Prior to 2010, we were fortunate to have developed a robust valuation methodology whereby the collection was categorised into six value bands. The works that fell into categories one to three had for some time been considered valuable, and many of these, coincidentally, were our iconic works. These works were our top priority if disaster struck. However, the list was by no means perfect, and decisions were made in a rather adhoc and informal way. The list was effectively, incomplete and nowhere near as comprehensive as it could have been.

We began researching the various methodologies that inform the development of priority lists. The many disaster preparedness resources available for galleries and museums made what we thought was a hard task, surprisingly easy. A resource that has been especially helpful was Be Prepared: Guidelines for Small Museums Writing a Disaster Preparedness Plan, yet we credit the development of our methodology to Bernard Kertesz who presented the paper Vital, Valuable or Vulnerable: The Construction of Priority Salvage Lists at the 2006 ARC conference. Categorising the collection into what we regard as the three V’s, was a model that worked for our organisation.

With the valuable works accounted for, we worked with curatorial to ascertain what works might be considered vital. We agreed that the works that fall into this category are essential to the survival of the organisation and carry significant cultural merit, for instance, ‘destination’ works or those in high use. It is important to note that these might not necessarily be considered valuable. Conservation were then asked to assess the vulnerability of all works and assign a risk factor such as fire, smoke, water or fragility.

After all assessments, the works not on the final list were considered and all parties felt confident that we had our bases covered.

We then considered usability. While databases and spreadsheets might be second nature to Registration staff familiar with location records, accession numbers and the like, we had to consider how a colleague not so familiar with our jargon, could make sense of the list if we were not present. Findings were collated into a spreadsheet that was designed to be as user friendly and instructive as possible. The priority list template includes accession numbers, basic work details, general and detailed storage locations and the status of the works, be they vital, valuable and, or vulnerable.

We found that almost all of our most valuable works were also vital and vulnerable, so these works were highlighted for quick identification. And this is the extent of prioritising priorities. We have avoided ranking the works in priority salvage order as this would change with new acquisitions, or revaluation of the collection. Likewise, the nature of the disaster and associated vulnerabilities will influence the response plan on the day. Factors that may influence decisions, such as the valuation category or vulnerabilities, are included so response plans can be tailored within the given framework. The list is sorted by location, as assessments occur store by store, or exhibition space by exhibition space.

The priority list is accompanied by a supplementary image-based list to assist with the identification of works. This is especially helpful when looking for a work that shares the same location as multiple works, and the accession number is obscured. Furthermore, some individuals work better with image-based reports as opposed to data presented in spreadsheets.

The next objective was to make the list accessible, but secure. The list exists in hardcopy and is stored in dedicated folders inside the doorway of each and every store, and has a cover sheet that outlines the methodology, reminding those responding to an event to first assess damage and move works only if necessary. The list is also saved in digital format on a secure drive accessible only to members of the disaster response team.

The review of the priority list was painless, and complete before the June 2011 earthquake struck. Fortunately we came away from that event unscathed, and relieved that had a salvage been necessary, we had a plan in place. Still closed, we didn’t expect the priority list would need revisiting until we reopened and location records would change. But, think again …

It was five months following the February earthquake before Civil Defence left the Gallery, and their relocation was in response to the looming demolition of the neighbouring Gallery apartments which are located, albeit on a lean, on our eastern boundary. It was not a straightforward demolition because the building was structurally compromised and there was a risk that, during demolition, our plant room could be damaged, and storage areas flooded.

Consequently, the collection and staff were relocated to the south side of the building, away from harms way. The relocation and storage of all priority works required careful consideration in our current climate. In this context, the priority list became a pivotal document in a different, yet related sense. Our proposal to relocate the entire collection to one space, with a demolition occurring next door, and during what has proven to be an active seismic sequence, makes insurers nervous so we are working hard to alleviate their concerns.

With confidence, we reassured insurers that the priority works would be protected, and placed throughout the space to prevent loss as a result of isolated events, such as spot leaks. Furthermore, we could pinpoint these works on a floor plan so if need be, we could access and salvage these works with relative ease, and, worst case scenario, if the building failed, we knew the exact location of these, and every other work in a physical sense, in space. Reassured, insurers approved our plans and confirmed cover would remain in effect during the relocation period.

We are not expected to reopen until mid to late 2013 and, we are aware that when it is business as usual, the administration of the list has the potential to be onerous.

To ensure the list remains current, at the time of acquisition, works will be given a ranking as either vital, valuable and, or vulnerable and this assessment will be entered into the Vernon database for the purpose of reporting. To assist with this task, we have started using the Risk and Assessment window in Vernon and have modified the Significance field to read Priority List. We have created our three V’s as terms that can be entered in this window, along with valuation categories and vulnerabilities. This data can be exported from Vernon, into Excel. We are fine tuning Vernon further, and seeking feedback from Vernon Systems about flagging these works so that when locations are updated, a prompt is sent to the user so they are aware that the priority list needs updating.

The mapping of priority works on floor plans has its benefits, and plans of storage detailing the locations of these works will be created on our eventual return back of house.

We are working with our website developers to create a secure section in the Staff Pages area on the Gallery’s website so it can be accessed offsite (power and internet permitting). We are doing this so that, if we are offsite, re-entry plans can be discussed in advance. For instance, in the event of building failure, be it a result of earthquake or fire, we can identify what works are in damaged environments. The reality is, we may need to direct Urban Search and Rescue or emergency services to these areas.

Regular review of the priority list and the wider plan is important. It remains, to this very day, a work in progress.

The priority list is all the better for the experience we have been through. And while such documents provide a framework for response, it is important to remember that they are as much about the care of people as they are about the care of collections. Priority lists and related plans remove an element of decision making from the mix, keeping panic at bay. They offer clear objectives, removing debate and conflict from the equation. They offer a degree of direction, and remind the response team what to focus on when the overall situation is daunting and overwhelming. Ultimately, priority lists help people cope, and assist an organisation with its recovery from disaster.
By Gina Irish, Registrar, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu