At over 110 years old, the Gibbes Museum of Art in downtown Charleston has seen its share of weather. As the museum’s website explains, the stately Meeting Street building is pretty damn resilient: “When the Gibbes Museum opened in 1905, the nation celebrated what Charleston has always understood: the power of art — to inspire our imagination, heal our hurt, revel in our experience, rebuild what’s broken, nourish our souls, and release all that holds us back.”
Several years ago, museum director of collections and operations Zinnia Willits wrote a blog post about taking care of the Gibbes’ extensive art collection during hurricane season. In it, she wrote of the museum surviving Hurricane Hugo, a category four storm in 1989, with minor damage to the building. Since then, the Gibbes ‘Disaster Plan for Collections’ has been revised and practiced again and again, so much that Willits says, “those involved are confident the Museum could once again weather a strong hurricane.”
When we chatted with Willits today she told us that hurricane prep has gotten even easier at the Gibbes since the museum’s 2016 renovation, citing a brand new HVAC system as one of the key factors in helping the museum keep its artifacts safe. In addition to better A/C (which keeps the climate and temperature controlled), the museum got a new roof during that recent renovation. And while each window is hurricane-proof (or bolstered with ‘insulators’ for extra layers of protection), in an abundance of caution, artwork is still removed from galleries with windows.
[content-3] If you follow the Gibbes on the ‘gram, you probably noticed some staff workers placing plastic over Mary Jackson’s incredible (and incredibly large) sweetgrass basket. “We’ve removed it in the past,” says Willits, “But it’s held to the wall with magnets. We have to decide what’s safer for the object.” This year, that meant leaving the basket where it was, rather than risking damage when moving it.
And those heavy sculptures in the rotunda gallery? They’re moved with caution with the help of both man and machine. At the end of the day, Willits, who’s been at the museum for 15 years says, “We’ve done this so many times. It’s like clockwork.”
To be accredited for disaster preparedness like the Gibbes, the American Alliance of Museums requires that museums have a comprehensive disaster plan. You can find the full list of services that the American Alliance offers museums during natural disasters, but rest assured there are emergency assistance numbers for each region in the country. Art’s important, y’all.
In addition to actually having a disaster plan, museums often prepare for natural disasters by, naturally, pretending they’re going through one. Willits writes, “In 2008 the South Carolina Federation of Museums (SCFM) staged a mock water disaster (with mock collection items) at Middleton Place Foundation for the workshop, Disaster Recovery for Museum Collections. Workshop participants spent the day learning how to respond to a water disaster and salvage and recovery techniques for paintings, furniture, textiles and a variety of objects. The workshop was led by Sharon Bennett, a veteran of Hurricane Hugo, who has taught numerous disaster preparedness workshops throughout the Southeast.”
Check out Willits’ blog in its entirety online. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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