In preparing for disasters, museums face tough choices

IT IS 3AM. You are the director of a gallery and you are woken by the phone call you dread. Your gallery is on fire. Each of its rooms contains around ten works of art. Each work is worth millions, perhaps tens of millions. From the moment a fire alarm sounds, you have “a matter of minutes”, says William Knatchbull, head of heritage planning at the London Fire Brigade, to get your artefacts out. Ideally, you would save them all. But you can’t: the fire is burning, the temperature is rising and the clock is ticking. It is time to choose.

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This is the world of “grab lists”—though not everyone calls them that. The Louvre in Paris prefers the more considered-sounding “priority lists”; others call them “salvage lists” or “snatch lists”. The Natural History Museum in London refers to the whole process as “salvage planning”. But whatever term an organisation uses, it comes to the same thing. These are the lists of holdings that—when the fire starts to burn, the floodwaters rise or the terrorist bomb explodes—will be saved first. They are lists of last resort; lists that all museums hope never to have to use.

And they are surprisingly short. A single gallery or museum might contain hundreds of thousands, even millions of objects (the British Museum has “at least” 8m). Grab lists ideally include “ten, 20 items”, says Mr Knatchbull; more in a bigger gallery, perhaps, but not many more. Ten objects from millions, worth billions of pounds, to be rescued in minutes. Think of grab lists as a version of “Supermarket Sweep”, a game show in which contestants fill a shopping trolley in a hurry, but for high culture and far higher stakes.

Whatever curators call these lists, they do not like to talk about them. Museums strive to present themselves as stately and sempiternal. “Grab lists” sound hasty and chaotic. The Louvre—which always has 14 firefighters on duty—is unusually open. It not only acknowledges having them, but confirms that each of its departments—paintings, sculptures, Egyptian antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, Islamic art and the rest—chooses its own list. The items on them are then ranked again, from “major works” (to be saved first) to lower priorities. The Louvre will not say what is in each category, but it is a fair bet that the “Mona Lisa” and the Venus de Milo would be among the first treasures to be rescued.

Deciding what to put on a list, says Mr Knatchbull, with the air of a man who has witnessed some spats, is “a really hard decision”. In a single museum you might have several heads of collections, “all saying their items are just as important as the others’.”These are not the sort of arguments curators are used to having. Questions of artistic value are usually slow-burn discussions with no fixed conclusion: art professors can spend decades delicately disagreeing over the relative merits of Manet and Degas. Fires, however, burn fast and end, conclusively, in ashes.

As some curators squabble, other places decline to accept that such lists are necessary. The Smithsonian in Washington says it “would not go through objects and decide what deserves to be saved after a disaster” since “our buildings are secure”.That sort of confidence is risky.

Under a darkling November sky, the fire alarm starts to sound at Ham House (pictured below), a 17th-century country pile in Richmond, south London, owned by the National Trust, a conservation charity. Parakeets scatter in alarm. The estate’s massive gates swing open. Minutes later, fire engines appear, scrunching over the gravel en masse. The pace is calm, not panicked; this is merely a salvage practice. But it is serious. As the alarm clangs, officials direct firefighters to the objects to be rescued: go up nine steps here, turn left, and there it is. Hoses slither and hiss over the flagstones.

“Every single National Trust property will have a priority list,” says Hannah Mawdsley, the curator in charge of this rehearsal. After all, staff in historic buildings have seen the fires at Notre Dame cathedral, Windsor Castle and Clandon Park, a Palladian mansion in Surrey. Tom Conlon, commander of the fire station conducting the drill, is sceptical about the idea that some buildings are safe. “Everything burns,” he says grimly.

The burden of history

Beyond overconfidence, though, museums have a good reason to be reticent about grab lists: they are invidious. “How do you choose between your children?” says Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Just as parents may surreptitiously have favourite offspring, so museums have favourite objects—but, as with children, it can be undiplomatic to name them. Putting the works from ancient Greece on your list while omitting, say, most of the Asia section, may cause ructions inside your museum and beyond. Donors might be miffed to find that a munificent gift was not earmarked for rescue.

Grab lists also involve grubby considerations of money. Museums are generally reluctant to put prices on their holdings, for pragmatic reasons as well as high-minded ones. Many rare or unusual works are literally priceless. Moreover, though it may be useful for curators to know which are most valuable and must be saved, ranking them could let others know too. If thieves were aware that, say, a hoard of Viking gold was a museum’s most prized possession, they might be more tempted to plunder it. So, in the case of public institutions, might a government in lean times. The British Museum has long declined to assign price tags to its treasures.

And all museums hate discussing insurance, not least because many have none. Of Britain’s “National Museums”—a group of 14 institutions that includes the British Museum and the National Gallery—none has any insurance for its permanent collections. It would simply cost too much. These museums are protected instead by government schemes—and a strong sense of fatalism.

Money is only one criterion for grab lists, though. A unique object, such as a pen that signed a peace treaty, might have a sentimental or political value that wildly exceeds its financial one. Compiling the lists forces curators to calibrate such trade-offs. More mundane factors must also be weighed—not least weight itself.

At Ham House, firefighters in protective kit and breathing apparatus, cumbersome as old-fashioned scuba gear, move in with rasping breath. In their hands are the grab sheets, which provide images of the objects and advice on the number of firefighters needed to carry them (one for light items, three for heavy ones). At the Louvre, too, firefighters look over the curators’ lists to see if they are practicable. Sometimes actual weight must trump the cultural kind. The Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, is three-quarters of a tonne of igneous rock. Held in the British Museum, it is going nowhere.

Imagining the worst

Other dimensions matter as well. A painting such as Hans Holbein’s “Ambassadors” stands at well over two metres from tip to toe. You’d struggle to get it through the door. In such cases, says Mr Knatchbull, “it could be that the salvage plan is to use a Stanley knife and to cut the painting out of the frame.” An Australian guide to priority lists gently reminds museums to consider not merely their attachment to an object, but the object’s attachment to the museum. Screwdrivers might be needed, the guide notes. It is wise advice. No one wants to run the museum where firefighters fiddled with an awkward wall bracket while the Rome section burned.

Not every museum and gallery runs drills. Even among those that have a plan, some simply assume that the worst will never happen to them. And, in most cases, it doesn’t. But as Alexander Kellner, the director of the National Museum of Brazil, knows better than most, when it does, it is bad. In September 2018, six months after becoming the museum’s boss, he stepped off a flight one Sunday evening to find his son and his assistant waiting for him. The assistant was in tears. The fire at the museum (pictured on previous page) had begun. By the time it was out, most of the collection of 20m objects was lost.

For those museum directors who consider themselves immune, Mr Kellner has some stark words. “I’m not religious, but I will pray to God that this will not happen to you,” he says. “Because once it happens, you can’t go back, can you?”After all, when “it’s lost, it’s lost.”

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