What to do to preserve cultural heritage in cases of disaster

According to the UN’s disaster monitoring system, the number of natural disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled since 1970 to around 400 a year. A “disaster” by the way is an incident where earthquakes, storms, floods and heatwaves have either caused at least 10 deaths, affected more than 100 people or prompted the declaration of a national emergency. There are many more incidents of a lesser magnitude which nevertheless represent a threat to heritage collections.

In addition, of course, other emergencies are possible. The list includes chemical emergencies, fire, landslide, nuclear explosion and terrorism. Less dramatic are incidents such as vandalism, theft, pests, pollutants, leakages and power failures, but they still have the potential to do great harm to collections. So how should cultural institutions respond?

Of course, there is already a lot of help and advice on business continuity planning and disaster recovery. And a lot has been written on how heritage and cultural venues should prepare for disaster.

However, the international standards community still felt an international standard could play an important role. After all, international standardization is essentially a framework for gathering best practice and expert input from around the globe, distilling it, disseminating it and even automatically reviewing on a regular basis to check that the information remains fresh and relevant. So in response to how galleries, museums, libraries and archives should prepare for disasters, the International Organization for Standardization has now produced BS ISO 21110:2019 Information and documentation - Emergency preparedness and response.


What does the standard cover?

Essentially, this standard provides a context for emergency planning, response and recovery for all types of archival, library and museum collection in the light of other existing plans. It provides stakeholders with an outline that will help them to plan for, respond to and recover from a critical event. It also offers a cycle within which institutions can develop, exercise and review a plan. It covers how to present a plan and encourages those who’ll respond in an emergency to develop their preparedness and response capabilities.

The first and main section of the standard deals with planning. It looks at the process of preparing a plan, which includes how to establish an emergency committee and develop response plan objectives. Users are then guided to work on risk assessment, analysis and management. What are the conditions or events that could lead to loss of damage to collections, and how can these hazards be mitigated? It’s noted that such risk assessments need to look at hazards and vulnerabilities which relate to the collection and what can harm it, including physical, biological or chemical effects on materials and even hazards from the collection itself which might contain radioactive elements, poison, asbestos or explosives.


Planning a plan

The standard then focuses on what should go into a plan. It provides an extensive list of basic plan elements which includes chain of command, procedures for activating response teams and salvage priority criteria and lists.

Plans have to be authorized, published and distributed. Thereafter they have to be maintained, not least in coordination with other plans such as crisis management, communication, business continuity and data protection plans. Planning should include training as well as exercising and testing the plan, all of which is covered in the standard.


Response and recovery

The next major section deals with response and recovery during and after an emergency. The standard notes that there may be a “pre-impact” phase – for instance a hurricane warning might be issued. In other situations there will be no warning so it’s a question of making assessments in the early phase of an emergency and acting in response. This might include triage: the process of assessing severity of damage in a short timeframe and then assigning priority to each item and transferring it to a place of stabilization. Thought needs to be given to the relocation of collection materials, with tracking a key component of the response plan.

The next phase is recovery from the emergency which starts as soon as the emergency is over. This process includes follow-up communications, assessment of new needs and priorities, the clean-up operation, and not least the conservation treatment, replacement, or reformatting of damaged collection items.

The final section looks at how to evaluate the performance of a plan. The Annexes then include a breakdown of the roles of stakeholders during an incident; a response and recovery plan template and a comprehensive list of tasks in the case of water leakage and a list of supplies.

This is the first standard of its kind prepared by ISO to help those who look after collections in case of emergency. Notwithstanding that there is other information available, it’s hoped that this authoritative and comprehensive document makes a valuable contribution to looking after collections if the worst should happen.


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