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This summer, B.C.’s wildfires put valuable collections in harm’s way – and alarmed cultural institutions across Canada, who are now rethinking what they should do about extreme weather, floods and other future hazards

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Animal specimens, documents and other artifacts sit on a shelf at a museum vault in Kelowna, B.C. 'Priority' tags, like the ones at bottom, are attached to valuable items that have to be spirited to safety if a natural disaster threatens the museum.Courtesy of Nikki Bose/Kelowna Museums

It was a chaotic Monday on the job for Jeremiah Ryder and his team of two. As ash fell onto the Westbank Museum in West Kelowna, B.C., and water bombers swooped down into Okanagan Lake, the small group inside the building had to take stock: reviewing which artifacts they would rescue first, in the event that a nearby wildfire overtook their area.

“The fire … is only a couple of kilometres from the museum right now,” said Mr. Ryder, the executive director, late that afternoon.

Previously planned fire-protective landscaping was under way outside – they’re replacing non-native species with drought-resistant plants. Inside, the phone was ringing all day, as tourists – the museum also functions as West Kelowna’s Visitor Centre – asked questions such as how to get around with highways closed owing to wildfires. And in between calls, there were serious discussions: what to save, what to leave.

One of the top items on the list of artifacts to rescue: a bible, several hundred years old. Regrettably not on the list: what Mr. Ryder described as one of the three smallest operating sawmills on the planet. “I can’t take that out of the museum because it’s 16 feet long,” he said. “There’s not enough manpower, there’s not enough help. There’s not enough places to put all the stuff.”

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A 16th-century bible is on the Westbank Museum's save list; a 16-foot-long sawmill, one of the three smallest operating in the world, is not.Courtesy of the Westbank Museum

It’s a tiny community museum that collects and displays artifacts from the area. Established in 1978 by a local couple as a retirement project on their own property, the museum moved to the old RCMP building in downtown Westbank in 2011.

Questions they asked themselves as they drew up the list: What is irreplaceable? What would insurance cover? What will fit into fire-safe bins? Or into the other storage containers they have, whose fireproofing ability is, as Mr. Ryder put it, “TBD?” “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of stuff that we’re just going to have to hope for. And that’s tragic.”

Ryder brought home the museum’s chequebooks and other paperwork. The plan, should need be, was for the precious artifacts to go to homes of employees or board members – as long as those homes were far enough away that they were not in a fire zone, not at risk of an evacuation alert or order. At least, not yet.

This feels like the summer when the climate emergency has come calling. More than 250 wildfires were burning across B.C. as of Thursday night – as well as untold others in many other parts of the country, and world. And this month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire report: a code red for humanity owing to climate change, which has implications for everyone, including museums and art galleries.

“With the recent UN report, it’s undeniable that these natural disasters are only going to be more common moving forward,” says Ryan Hunt, executive director of the BC Museums Association. He points out that there is no national or provincial strategy officially in place in the case of widespread collections emergencies. And he is urging action. “The time is now to be having these conversations, because we don’t know what next summer is going to hold, we don’t know what next winter is going to hold.”

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The Kelowna Museums has early Boy Scout uniforms and a whooping crane that was shot in Saskatchewan more than a century ago; both have made the priority list.Courtesy of Nikki Bose/Kelowna Museums

Climate change is exacerbating many of the already clear and present dangers to cultural institutions. Risk management is crucial for any museum or gallery, to protect items from what’s commonly known as the 10 Agents of Deterioration. These include fire, water, physical forces (including earthquakes), temperature, humidity and pests.

“With the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires (not to mention hurricanes and other natural disasters), it is becoming imperative, more than ever before, for museums to have an updated, comprehensive disaster preparedness and emergency response plan to help ensure the safety of their staff, minimize risk, and preserve their structures and facilities,” declared the Western Museums Association in a statement on its website after fire ripped through Lytton, B.C. this summer, destroying most of the town, including the Lytton Museum and Archives and the Chinese History Museum.

In Ottawa, the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has added climate change to its Framework for Preserving Heritage Collections – a key resource for museums and galleries.

“This year, suddenly climate change is a very real thing,” says Heidi Swierenga, senior conservator at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and head of the Collections Care and Access Department. “We’re seeing the complete devastation of entire communities and institutions, and as soon as people see that, all of a sudden, it’s real. And it has to become part of the institutions’ mandate to plan for it.”

Ms. Swierenga is one of the founders of the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network. BC HERN is a consortium of art, culture and heritage workers “who feel morally and professionally obliged” to plan for emergency situations and support other cultural institutions in such an event. The initiative was created amid a growing risk to collections owing to climate change. In search of the positive, Ms. Swierenga hopes disaster preparedness will become a priority with the climate emergency. “It’s always the thing that’s easy to fall off the table because there are so many other priorities and these institutions are usually working with skeletal staff. They’re non-profits with minimal staffing … just trying to keep the business running.”

Often, smaller museums are more at risk – without the infrastructure or staff to help in an emergency. The Westbank Museum was safe last week, thanks to shifts in the winds and changes in weather. But who knows what’s ahead? With a group like BC HERN, processes are put in place so larger institutions can help, and not in an ad hoc manner each time. Because there are going to be more.

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The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro fell victim to fire on Sept. 2, 2018, pictured at top. Journalists took a tour of the site five months later, bottom, and saw infrastructure in ruins and workers sifting through the debris to find artifacts of value.Photos: Leo Correa and Silvia Izquierdo/AP, Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images


The devastating effects of fire were on full display in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, with the destruction of Brazil’s National Museum and its collections – including Indigenous artifacts from Canada’s Northwest Coast. When the California wildfires came threateningly close to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2019, the museum closed – but the collections were safe inside; the facility was built to withstand fires.

The way a museum or storage facility is designed and constructed can help protect against dangers now made worse by climate change. In 1997, the Canadian Museum of Nature opened a new facility in Gatineau for storage and administration built to safeguard its collections from disasters such as fires, flooding and pests – top-priority concerns for museums, even before climate change became evident in everyday life. Known as the Natural Heritage Campus, the Gatineau structure has a firewall around the facility and each collection area functions independently, separated by firewalls. Around the main facility is what’s known as the Dynamic Buffer Zone, which helps with environmental control and pest management. In an interview, collection services and information management head Sean Tudor compared the design to a Kinder Egg, or nesting dolls. Buildings within buildings, he said.

The facility is seen as a model when it comes to building a structure to withstand natural threats. It was one of the places that Parks Canada toured as it planned its new state-of-the-art-of-protection storage facility, under construction in Gatineau.

Best practices when it comes to damage prevention and preparedness also include communication strategies. Fire plans are communicated to key staff – and local first responders. At the Museum of Nature, for example, they’re alerted to which departments have radioactive material.

To prepare for a worst-case scenario, many institutions draw up priority lists: what should be rescued first from a catastrophe – or salvaged, when it’s safe. These lists can be shared with first responders when it’s safe for them to go inside – generally, before staff can be let back in. At the Kelowna Museums, for instance, priority items are marked with tags and notices on the shelves. “Things that are of intense heritage value or things that are extremely costly or impossible to replace,” curator of collections Nikki Bose says. They include rare bird eggs and early Boy Scout uniforms. Items on loan from other institutions are also high on the priority list for rescuing. During a flooding scare a few years ago, Ms. Bose took items home, to higher ground, to keep them safe. But this practice – even if it’s the only option – raises other concerns: What if that person’s home is evacuated? What happens if the item is damaged or destroyed in an attempt to save it? How do you track these artifacts?

Digitization of museum collections is important. In the case of Lytton’s Chinese History Museum, for example, many of the destroyed artifacts exist in digital form, notes Rebecca MacKenzie with the Canadian Museums Association. “It can prove a great starting point for rebuilding a physical collection as well as a learning tool.”

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Water covers the streets of Calgary in June of 2013, when floods caused by heavy rain displaced tens of thousands of Albertans and damaged billions of dollars worth of property.The Canadian Press


Plumbing is important – very important – when it comes to cultural collections. A burst pipe or a misfire of the gallery’s sprinkler system can be devastating. Museums can mitigate this concern with architectural choices. At the Museum of Nature, for instance, water lines for the labs don’t travel over the collection spaces, but over the main corridor.

In 2013, many of Alberta’s cultural institutions experienced the devastating impact of severe flooding. High River’s Museum of the Highwood lost about 80 per cent of its collection; Calgary’s National Music Centre’s collection loss was around $2.5-million (the NMC has since moved to a larger, safer, purpose-built building).

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary sent conservators to what is now the arts hub cSPACE, where affected galleries could bring artwork to see if it could be restored. “It was kind of like a refugee camp for impacted art,” says the Glenbow’s collections manager, Daryl Betenia. “We did a fair bit of triage and offered advice.”

The flood waters never reached the Glenbow that terrible June, but even if they had, Ms. Betenia notes that its collections are stored relatively high up in the building, beginning on the fifth floor. “So that would have saved us,” she says. Acknowledging that it’s not always an option for museums and galleries, Ms. Betenia says one thing the experience “absolutely validated” is that basements and ground floors should not be used as storage areas. “There’s just too much risk.”

Building a new structure allows for consideration of these things from the ground up. Parks Canada’s new Gatineau facility will consolidate collections from five places across the country – everything from 10,000-year-old Indigenous artifacts to 16th- and 17th-century colonial ceramics to poet Robert Service’s typewriter and Mackenzie King’s crystal ball. The double-walled structure – built on a single floor – will include dry ponds to help capture water in case of flooding. And large water-holding tanks for fire suppression.

“It’s a responsibility to care for these items on behalf of Canadians,” says TJ Hammer, director of collections, curatorial and conservation. “It’s a serious endeavour.”

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Workers lower a totem pole at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, part of preparations for seismic upgrades to the building.Alina Ilyasova, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC


At the Museum of Anthropology on the UBC campus in Vancouver, the totem poles and other carvings have been removed from the Great Hall; visitors can see some of them lying on their side in an adjacent gallery as the museum conducts major seismic upgrades.

Earthquakes are of significant concern on the West Coast – and in other parts of Canada that are on fault lines. Simple strategies include the seemingly obvious, such as building shelves with lips, to minimize items falling to the ground.

At MOA, a study commissioned in 2014 found that its Great Hall was seismically vulnerable and required rebuilding.

The overhaul is happening now, using a technology known as base isolation. The Arthur Erickson building will be deconstructed and reconstructed, with base isolators – structural elements meant to absorb the impact of any seismic activity – placed under the main floor slab. “It’s like putting big shock absorbers underneath the Great Hall to take the impact of an earthquake, if one should ever happen,” MOA associate director Moya Waters says.

The Great Hall is closed for the duration. When asked what it will look like when it reopens, Ms. Waters said it will replicate the current space. “The goal is to make it look like nothing had ever happened.”

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A child looks at butterfly cocoons at London's Natural History Museum in 2018. Museum organizers have to make sure the only insects in the facility are the one they intend to be there.Hannah McKay/Reuters


One huge concern for museums and galleries when it comes to safeguarding their collections might not qualify as a natural disaster, but it is natural and it can be disastrous: pest infestation.

When Ember Lundgren first started volunteering at the Royal BC Museum in the 1990s, she was tasked with inspecting the windowsills for insects. Now, Ms. Lundgren, acting head of collections care and conservation at the RBCM, deals with Integrated Pest Management at a more senior level. This is one of any museum’s primary concerns, but institutions that deal with natural history face particular challenges.

“One of the collections that would suffer the most from an infestation would be our insect collections,” Lundgren says. “Our entomology collections are very fragile. They’re pinned and dried and they make a delicious feast for live bugs.”

Silverfish love paper and photographs. Moths are bad news for textiles. Carpet beetles, ladybugs, rats, nesting birds – also trouble. The list is long. And potentially in flux, because of climate change.

So at the RBCM, there is no eating at your desk, no matter what part of the facility you work in; metal cabinets are preferred to wood; and, as is standard practice at museums, items which have been donated or loaned spend time in a freezer before entering the museum proper. If freezing might cause damage, the object is inspected visually in a designated room, away from where the collections are stored.

The pandemic raised new issues for pest control, with museums emptied of their human inhabitants. What snacks might have been left behind in drawers? At the freshly vacated Museum of Nature, a room-by-room sweep took three days, reports Mr. Tudor, who, like other employees of the museum, must keep desk snacks (M&Ms, in his case) sealed inside museum-issued plastic containers.

And with front-line workers – who are the eyes and ears when it comes to detecting pests – no longer around, anyone who has had to go into the office for any reason has been asked to keep watch for anything unusual in this regard. See an insect? Report it.

Mr. Tudor says the Museum of Nature has come through it okay – a testament to the habits the conservation team has instilled in staff over the years. He knocked on wood – the IKEA desk in his home office – as he said this.

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A giant globe hangs from the ceiling at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa this past July.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

As climate change fuels concerns around catastrophes at cultural institutions, Ms. Swierenga is calling for more co-ordination and stable funding for groups such as BC HERN. In 2017, the group signed a statement of co-operation with other institutions, including MOA, the RBCM and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“I think it is an incomprehensible situation that there is currently no national or provincial strategy for the salvage of collections. Salvage or preparedness,” says Ms. Swierenga. She says that while CCI is an important resource, it is centralized in Ottawa and not always positioned to support the entire country. “This is why the development of the network is needed and why people have been working off the sides of their desk to create a model that will fill the void.” She says she is hopeful that long-term funding will become available to support this work.

Mr. Hunt, at the BCMA, worries that for museums already dealing with the devastation of the pandemic, even mild damage from wildfires or flooding could lead to closings across the province. He points out that if a museum has already gone through emergency reserves, even minor smoke or flood damage with a bill of, say, $10,000, could be catastrophic.

“That $10,000 can then trigger a cascade of events that ends up with museums having to close down. So, with the ever-increasing certainty of climate-related natural disasters, on top of an already precarious sector, I do see a scenario in which even relatively minor disasters – let alone catastrophic disasters like we’ve seen this summer – could trigger massive sector-wide closures.”

Galleries and institutions have a role to play in the climate crisis that goes beyond protecting their collections: They can help galvanize the public with exhibitions, education – and outreach. “Museums are one of the most trusted institutions in our society. We have a voice and people listen,” wrote the BC Museums Association on its website after the release of the devastating report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Through our exhibits and programming, we can help communities better understand the threat posed by climate change. We can equip communities with actions they can take as individuals to make a difference.”

They can also lead by example. In the United States, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has created a Climate Initiative to advance the goal of carbon neutrality in the visual arts. Nearly 80 collecting institutions received more than US$5-million in the inaugural grant cycle this year.

In Canada, Robert R. Janes, founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, says museums must reduce their consumption and footprint and start the conversation with their communities – and adds this isn’t happening much in this country. In February, he issued an open letter to Canadian museums and gallery directors, saying that cultural institutions are uniquely qualified to help mitigate the climate crisis. He has now started using the term “climate chaos,” saying things have escalated from a crisis.

“It is time to honour the public trust that museums have been gifted,” wrote Dr. Janes, who is based in Canmore, Alberta.

“What are we waiting for?”

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Figures of water, smoke and fire loom large in Rajni Perera's mural at the Kamloops Art Gallery.Photo: Garnet Dirksen


An artist’s hot take in the fire zone

Climate-related art can be powerful.

Consider the current exhibition at the Kamloops Art Gallery – within spitting distance of the fire zone. The participating artists landed in Kamloops in July to a shock of smoke. “They were astonished,” says the KAG’s executive director, Margaret Chrumka.

One of them, Toronto-based, Sri Lankan-born Rajni Perera, addressed the fiery atmosphere in a site-specific work she made, Protectors: a 15-foot wall painting with figures she calls the smoky polluters looking up to one figure that looks like fire and another that looks like water, as if to say we need your help and your forgiveness.

It’s a mural that would hit home for many of the people who have wandered through the gallery, with free admission offered to all evacuees from wildfires.

Ms. Chrumka, who describes herself as an “apocaloptimist,” was talking about this in an interview on a good day – however one might classify “good” in Kamloops this hot, dry, smoky summer. She described the sky as hazier than a Takao Tanabe painting. There was a bit of blue sky visible, she said.

A couple of days later, the sky – and the mood – had changed, as the White Rock Lake wildfire escalated and new evacuation alerts had been ordered.

Illustration of a woman facing a window that shows her reflection and a fire-destroyed landscape on the outside In a climate crisis, artists have a duty to speak up – but what should they say?

Facing her fears about the end of our world, Marsha Lederman set out to explore the apocalyptic and optimistic messages of modern art.

Read more

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