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Rescuing Our History from the Ashes

Smithsonian Institution's Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies (PRICE) workshop at the National Fire Research Laboratory

smoke billows from the open doorway of a burning test storage room
Credit: J. Stoughton/NIST

Smoke and flames engulf a test chamber serving as a simulated museum storage room at NIST's National Fire Research Laboratory.

What strikes terror in the hearts of museum curators everywhere? Budget cuts, surely. But worse yet, the prospect of precious, irreplaceable relics being damaged or destroyed in a fire. The Sept. 2, 2018, fire at Brazil's National Museum, estimated to have consumed 90 percent of its 20 million cultural and scientific artifacts, underscores the reality of this danger.

So, how does the Smithsonian Institution, steward of over 150 million artifacts — from the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon to Dorothy’s ruby slippers — prepare for such disasters?

As “The Incredibles” icon Edna Mode would say (paraphrasing Louis Pasteur), “Luck favors the prepared.”

Click here to read the full blog post about this collaboration between the NFRL and Smithsonian Institution.

 

a roughly made clay mask lying face up with a piece of cloth over its eyes
Credit: J. Stoughton/NIST
Is it over yet? A pottery mask from, amusingly, the "MacGuffin Collection" awaits the burn.
Shelves filled with various faux artifacts
Credit: J. Stoughton/NIST
Shelves inside a storage cabinet are filled with a variety of different objects. The shelves and cabinet doors were closed before the fire began.

Related Video

360° video (CLICK AND DRAG CURSOR IN VIDEO TO CHANGE ORIENTATION) of a simulated fire inside of a replica of a museum collection storage room. The experiment was part of a Smithsonian Institution's Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies (PRICE) workshop held at the National Fire Research Laboratory (NFRL). The fire was ignited using an 'electric match' placed in a trash can filled with shredded paper and plastic bottles and spread to involve a cardboard box filled with packing peanuts and neighboring materials. The fire was extinguished manually using an overhead sprinkler prior to compartment flashover at an upper layer gas temperature of approximately 750 C. The spherical camera used to record the video was housed in special enclosure developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). For more information and additional 360° fire videos visit the 360-Degree Video in Fire Research project webpage. 
Released October 26, 2018, Updated November 14, 2018