I was about to write a post on libraries and museums in Joplin and across the recent tornado and flooding zones–but it seems useful to take a step back. I want to understand why I’m so drawn to reflection on cultural heritage responses and recoveries in the face of disasters, both natural and human-made. There are two ideas here to tease out, I think–the vulnerability of collections to water and fire and earthquakes, and the place of cultural heritage institutions in community recovery.
For the first, many institutions are unprepared for sudden disasters. We often have disaster plans, but they may not be well-distributed or well-publicized, and staff may not know what to do. Or the scale of the disaster is beyond staff ability to remediate. May 1 is a time where we’re supposed to raise awareness about these issues, so here’s your obligatory MayDay for Collections link, with connections to resources.
Disasters also remind us of our stewardship responsibilities. At collecting institutions, part of our job is to ensure that the stuff outlives us, so that future visitors can encounter and learn from and wonder at it. Artifacts like huge pieces of machinery dwarf us and by their sheer bulk may convince us that they are not vulnerable. But of course they are. And if/when we let them fall apart, we become part of a story about hubris, and ruins, and the dustiness and incommensurability of the past with the present. Is this the story we want to embody?
For the place of LAMs in disaster recovery, I always wonder what I can do as a historian and museum person–as opposed to an EMT–in the face of disaster. And I’m drawn to the idea of cultural heritage institutions as places of hospitality. The library in Joplin is open and took no damage, though some staff had their homes destroyed. It’s both service and hospitality to provide a free warm place with electricity and internet access, as well as access to other resources. That’s not nothing in a disaster situation. Museums are not so good as this, though some have been imagining them as places for community, food, resources, learning and wonder in response to both current challenges and post-apocalyptic scenarios.
I think I cover these disasters, then, in that they affect cultural heritage institutions, because they are opportunities to help both people and collections. To help people by providing them with space and resources and an assurance that their stories are important; and to help collections by an increasing attention to their physical vulnerability. And because it’s worthwhile to publicize opportunities to help.