Risk Management in Museums

Risk Management Burn Workshop

In light of recent tragedies in the museum world, many institutions are exploring new ways to respond effectively to fires, flooding, and other disasters in collections storage areas. Spacesaver is proud to support these efforts to protect collections.

7 Minute Read

The Importance of Preparedness Training

In the aftermath of a disaster, personnel need to respond as efficiently as possible to minimize damage that might have impacted collections. Preparedness training helps responders not only preserve collections, but also minimize their physical risk and manage psychological distress. By learning best practices and establishing detailed procedures, museum professionals are helping ensure that collection objects are recovered and preserved.

fire proof museum collection storage cabinet

Four minutes into the six-minute simulation. Temperatures on the side of the Spacesaver cabinet eventually reached upwards of 1000 degrees F.

‘Holy Smokes’ Workshop

It’s one thing to study about procedures to follow after a fire; it’s another thing to experience a fire in person and actually handle damaged artifacts. That was the central idea behind the “Holy Smokes! Fire Recovery Workshop” that was held at the National Fire Research Laboratory near Washington D.C. in late 2018. The workshop organizers wanted to create a realistic scenario that replicated an actual museum’s collections storage area, then safely ignite a fire and help participants document, assess, and salvage items in the aftermath.

A simulated collections storage area was prepared in a chamber at the lab. To help establish a realistic scenario, workshop organizers brought non-accessioned objects that were essentially destined for the dumpster and placed them on shelving and inside and on top of a sealed cabinet supplied by Spacesaver. Boxes, posters, papers, and other items were also placed around the chamber. The fire was ignited in a trash can by a remote switch, and it spread quickly.

Participants watched the fire from a safe room. After the fire was extinguished, experienced responders donned safety gear, retrieved objects from the burn chamber, and handed them off to workshop facilitators, who demonstrated how to assess and triage the objects. Participants were organized into groups and eventually established a rhythm for evaluating and processing objects.

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“Witnessing a familiar scene in a state of destruction, with unfamiliar sights, sounds, or smells, can cause acute physical responses of stress. Stress can cascade into physical and emotional reactions… which can lead to confusion, accidents, exhaustion, or worse.”

– Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin

Although the workshop’s primary objective was to teach participants how to ensure workers’ safety during and after a fire and establish procedures to conserve damaged objects, the event’s organizers emphasized that responders’ mental health should be considered, as well. Any accidental fire or flood is tragic, but dealing with a disaster among irreplaceable museum collections is exceptionally difficult. Preparedness training helps mitigate the effects of extreme stress by ensuring that participants know what to do and can take positive action as soon as possible.

museum cabinet burn chamber test


Non-accessioned props were placed in and on a Spacesaver museum cabinet. The ‘relics’ were fakes; no actual objects from collections were used in the burn chamber.

museum cabinet fire workshop


Workshop participants watched the fire from a safe room.

museum cabinet fire test


Although the exterior of the cabinet reached at least 1000 degrees F, the Spacesaver cabinet suffered only minor damage and all objects that were stored inside remained intact.

After the fire was extinguished, workshop participants were organized into teams to process the fake ‘artifacts’ that were recovered from the burn chamber.

Credit: J. Stoughton/NIST

Cabinet Performance

Although the primary goal of the workshop was to help participants feel more confident in dealing with the effects of a fire, here at Spacesaver we were eager to see how our sealed cabinet would perform under extreme conditions. Following initial evaluation on-site by PRICE staff, the cabinet was returned to our headquarters in Wisconsin. Here’s what we found.

museum cabinet steel sealed cabinet

Cabinet Exterior

The left side of the cabinet was directly exposed to flames and showed the most damage. The powder coat finish was completely burned off approximately 95% of the left panel side, with areas of minor buckling and deformation across the full area of the panel. Deformation was minimized by the center stiffener on the inside of the end panel, and the end panel stayed dimensionally true and square. Some powder coat burned off the top panel as well.

museum cabinet fire test results

The side flange of the top did buckle and produce a 1.25” gap in the seam between the top and side panels. The back panel had minor deformation with hardly any powder coat baked off. All other panels suffered only soot damage and were coated in residue left behind from burned paper and other items that were on top of the cabinet during the fire.

The cabinet remained dimensionally true at the corners with the only abnormalities being varied overall dimensions due to the panel deformations.

Cabinet Seal

The gasket, which was only rated to 175°F, melted in certain areas and bonded the door to the cabinet. This was evident when the fire crew had to “peel” the door from the case.

We conducted a carbon dioxide leak-down test to better understand whether the gasket retained its effectiveness after the fire. The cabinet tested at 5.4 days half-time decay. Ultrasonic leak detection did identify spikes at the panel side flange and areas of the gasket that suffered melting damage. These spikes were not significant, as the exchange rate was still within standards. The gap in the top panel flange did not produce leakage, due to the caulking on the interior seam, which remained intact.

museum cabinet seal gasket test

museum cabinet fire tray no heat damage

Cabinet Interior

All trays were checked for proper operation and ease of movement on the corrugated panel. The trays all moved easily and were removed from the cabinet. The rear bumper gasket on the interior back panel had melted slightly, which might have resulted in the initial “sticking” of the trays noted by the salvage team. Trays were free from deformation or powder coat burn-off. Leftover foam and paper showed no signs of heat damage or bonding to the tray surface. When these items were removed, the tray surface was clean and free from any residue that was present on exposed surfaces throughout the cabinet interior. The brownish residue visible on the trays is from the powder coating that baked off the interior end panel.

museum cabinet fire residue proof

The left corrugated panel was removed to expose the end panel interior.

The corrugated panel appears to have acted as a buffer between the extreme heat on the cabinet’s exterior and the objects stored inside. Although the interior of the left end panel was not scorched, 90 percent of the surface area was affected by peeling and flaking of the coating. Powder coat paint will typically flake off at approximately 800°F. When the temperature reaches approximately 1000°F the coating is powderized.

The backside of the corrugated panel had residue deposits but showed no signs of deformation or loss of coating.

museum cabinet corrugated panel fire test

Handles & Locks

All handle and locking mechanisms remained operational.

preservation cabinet fire water test

No Water Damage

Initial review from the salvage team and thorough evaluation at our facility showed no signs of water damage.

‘In the end participants were surprised at the number of objects which required cleaning or drying but had suffered little damage. They learned that the terrifying conflagration that they had feared and witnessed take over a familiar-looking scene was something from which objects could indeed be recovered, with their skills.’

– Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin

download risk management guide

Want to learn more about risk management in museums? Download the full guide!

Your Partner in Collections Care

Spacesaver is committed to helping museums and other institutions fulfill their responsibility to protect and preserve collections. For nearly 50 years we’ve offered innovative approaches to optimizing space and maintaining ideal preservation environments.

Our solutions have stood the test of time, and we’re committed to helping the museum community continue to learn and grow. Our local consultants, backed up by our in-house engineering and manufacturing professionals, can partner with your team to help preserve the past and prepare for the future.

Please contact us today to arrange for a free, no-obligation space assessment.

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