Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: A Dance with Disasters

by columnist Madeline Karp

Lately, a series of weird things have been happening at my museum. A short while back, Philadelphia had massive wind and rainstorms. In a matter of two weeks, we experienced no less than two power failures and a flood. It sounds drastic to call them disasters, but had the museum staff been unprepared to handle the situation, there certainly could have been disastrous consequences.

Given our recent roller coaster ride, I thought this might be a good moment to go over good museum practice. In case of emergency…what should you do??

1. Know your museum’s emergency preparedness plan.

Do you know where your department meets for a head count in case of a fire drill? How about where visitors should go in case of a power failure?

Knowing where to go and what to do in case of an emergency helps maintain calm among visitors and employees. When the power went out at the Please Touch Museum, all of the museum staff ushered visitors into the main hall. Parents and children remained calm, because the staff was calm. Yes, something was amiss, but there was no need to panic. Everyone knew where to go and what to do. During the flood, operations managers and cleaning staff knew the most efficient ways to eliminate the water and the smell. The museum opened for business as usual, with only a few extra “Wet Floor” signs hinting that something had happened.

CHECK: Does your museum have an emergency preparedness plan or handbook?

2. Have back up programming.

What do you do when your lecturer suddenly gets sick? Or when your museum experiences a power failure? Having a back up plan can keep you from having to cancel events.

Instead of kicking people out, the PTM staff jumped into action. No, visitors couldn’t see the theater show during the power outage, but they could attend an interactive story time in the main hall! Using costumes and puppets, Education, Visitor Services and Community Outreach staff worked together to put on educational programming that connected stories, puppets, games and songs to appropriate learning standards. Children learned about the parts of bugs and played with various bug puppets, and were read stories about sharing and making friends. Visitors had so much fun playing this way, there was a little disappointed groan when the lights came back on a short while later.

CHECK: Do you have back up programs? Having an emergency program (and a battery powered microphone kit) up your sleeve never hurts!

3. Practice good stewardship – Keep things off the floor!

Floods happen for a variety of reasons. Ours was thanks to heavy rain and a blocked sewer system. Museum staffers came in to over a foot of water in the some parts of the basement, and a less-than-pleasant smell.

The Community Outreach department had a program later that day. Thankfully, because they stored their supplies off the floor, none of their materials were wet or damaged. But several file boxes left on the floor were water damaged. It is always easier to save supplies damaged by water than those damaged by fire; however, storing your files, collections and program aids correctly can prevent any damage at all.

CHECK: Are your supplies and collections stored according to good stewardship practices? Need a refresher? (It’s okay, we all do sometimes.) Check out AAM’s guide to good collections stewardship here.

4. Know who to call and when.

A visitor falls down the stairs and injures herself. Someone’s Nalgene explodes, spilling water all over the floor. A researcher accidentally tears a priceless document in the reading room. Who do you call?

At the children’s museum, we experience a lot of spills, involving both liquids and people. It’s important to know when to call in the cleaning crew, the supervisor or even an ambulance.

CHECK: Do you know who to call and when? If not, familiarize yourself with your museum’s First Aid policies and emergency cleaning procedures.

5. Teamwork is everything.

When something goes awry, it’s stressful for EVERYONE. In case of emergency, keep calm, and lend a helping hand wherever you can.  I’m so proud of the way my colleagues handled themselves these past few weeks. Just when we thought nothing else could go wrong – the power would go out again. Sticking together and helping each other has really made us a stronger team.

And while our forays into emergency preparedness have been exciting (dare I say…fun?) let’s keep our fingers crossed that our dance with disaster is over for a little while.

Has your museum experienced a disaster? What did you do? Which policies helped? Which needed work? Share your stories with me in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Jenna O'Donnell

    March 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Wow, the Please Touch Museum really has its bases covered! Who would know that so much thought and consideration goes in to emergency preparedness– going way beyond just simple safety concerns. What a cool insight into the museum! Sounds like they really try to think of everything! Especially the kids.

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