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Museums Are Trying to Fireproof Themselves in the Age of Climate Change

As California suffers through yet another devastating fire season, flames have not just been driving people from their homes and filling the air with smoke, but threatening the state’s cultural institutions. Explosive wildfires that broke out in Los Angeles this week came within a mile of the Getty Center and perilously close to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. When a natural disaster threatens a museum or other important institution like that, human safety is the first priority: firefighters battle the blaze, and paramedics respond to medical calls. But after that, a different kind of first responder lands on the scene. Call it EMS for art.

“It’s kind of like the ambulance getting onsite to help stabilize (art) collections that are saved for later surgery,” said Jessica Unger, emergency programs coordinator at the nonprofit Foundation for Advancement in Conservation. The group trains museum employees and a corps of traveling volunteers how to clean damaged works and how to triage: removing soot, preventing mold, stopping bleeding dyes. Objects that get wet are more likely to survive than those that are burned, but many are salvageable and can be eventually restored or repaired.

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“Obviously we recognize our role in the hierarchy of a response and we always defer to those first responders who are prioritizing human life are very grateful for the work they do,” said Unger. “But we also recognize that it’s essential to be able to preserve cultural heritage in these kinds of events because often these institutions hold unique, one-of-a-kind collections that tell a story about our humanity.”

Large museums typically have comprehensive emergency plans in place. The Getty Center complex was built to withstand fire, and the plazas and open spaces around buildings were designed with fire retardation in mind. It’s so well protected that even as the immediately surrounding areas evacuated and flames quickly spread towards the museum housing irreplaceable works, the museum staff didn’t flinch. They posted a detailed blog for concerned supporters, “Why the Getty Center Is the Safest Place for Art During a Fire,” and firefighters even used the Getty as a rest area, and ate at its café.

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