The country’s museums are facing increasing floods and frequent forest fires, and the whole history inside is under threat. The value at stake cannot be calculated. Now there is a rush to make the structures more sustainable, but funding this will be a feat.
The problem is especially acute in the Smithsonian National Museums. Water is already rising at the Museum of American History at the National Mall in Washington. On a dry day, in the midst of two dry weeks, there was water in the bowels of the building.
As Nancy Bechtol, director of all Smithsonian Institution facilities, explained, “It’s just groundwater.”
Bechtol is responsible for 13 million square feet of museum space, most of which is located in a shopping center below sea level, as well as two museums in New York and one in Virginia.
“We always kind of plan ahead and kind of prepare different emergency responses to be prepared to have our staff ready and to have planning,” she said.
Another pressing issue is heavy rainfall. Water from the rain leaked into the Smithsonian District after a severe storm in 2006 and again last spring when more than a foot of water was flooded in the cafeteria of the American History Museum. None of the collection was damaged, but museum director Ante Hartig saw an inscription on the consecrated walls.
The rose water is already seeping into the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
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“We have collected almost 2 million objects. We have three linear miles of archival material that tells an unprecedented material history of our country’s great past, so we are deeply committed to understanding how to modernize a building, take care of collections,” Hartig said.
In fiscal year 2021, the Smithsonian budget was $ 214 million, and Bechthol said it is using as much as it can to protect, for example, to install floodplains around buildings, build rain gardens, buy sandbags, raise backup generators and build a brand new A shelter on a hill in Sweetland, Maryland, is expected to open this year. Artifacts that are most at risk in the museum’s basements in the mall will be transferred there.
“Even if I have to protect with plastic, I will protect with plastic,” Bechtol said.
She is not alone in the struggle. New coastal museums in Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida, have been built with special flood defenses, and private funding is gradually beginning to increase to protect old buildings.
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, dedicated to supporting the legacy of the famous abstract artist, has allocated $ 5 million over the next two to three years to invest in clean energy, energy efficiency and climate sustainability.
“We received 110 applications. It was only six weeks of notification. These 110 applications came from people who knew exactly what to do and how they wanted to approach it,” said Sarah Satan, grant manager of the Foundation’s Climate Initiative.
As a result, the fund recently doubled its commitment to $ 10 million – now the largest private investment in museum climate resilience and twice as much as funding from the National Arts Fund.
“No, that’s not enough,” Satan said. “This incredible commitment is just a drop in the bucket, but it is a demonstration that the museum sector is ready to tackle this problem.”
This money helped the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center implement forest fire protection for its structure, energy systems and air filtration after the J.W. Paul Getty was close to destruction in 2019 during fires in Los Angeles and Malibu.
“These collections do not depreciate over time. They increase in value, whether of intellectual value or financial value. Protecting and protecting them in the long run increases their value to us, the museum and investors in the long run,” Satan said.