Museum Monday: Fire Bad

Large_bonfireA lot of the things that cause deterioration in museums are things most people don’t think of as being destructive. Fire, on the other hand, is pretty easy to explain how it cause things to deteriorate. Quickly. Into non-things.

There have been at least two structural fires of off-site buildings that have destroyed items from my museum collections. I am still trying to determine WHAT items were in which locations that no longer exist. Both fires pre-date my tenure at the museum by decades. We’ve also had two almost fires while I’ve been there. A ventilation fan older than either of my parents ran out of lubrication one time and came very close to combusting, and an incandescent light fixture shorted and started smoking.

I also run into collection items like: strike anywhere matches, live ammunition, flammable liquids, and various potentially unstable chemicals, that could all be potential ignition sources. I’ve also had donors attempt to donate such items to the museum which has led me to craft a policy that if the US Postal Service won’t let you mail it, I can’t accept it for donation. There are two mindsets for potential ignition sources within existing collections. One is to isolate the items and remove all sources of oxygen and fuel, thus making it impossible to ignite. The other (and my preference) is to safely and legally dispose of the item. (NOTE FOR PEOPLE FINDING THIS PAGE OFF OF REALLY SCARY GOOGLE SEARCH QUERIES: Your local police department will assist you in disposing of old ammunition/gunpowder/etc. contact them via your local non-emergency number for information) I don’t get hazard pay and there are too many objects and not enough space/time/resources for me to safely store and monitor hazardous objects. Another object that can be a source of ignition or exacerbate fire situations is cellulose nitrate film. Now, clearly I’m not going to willy nilly get rid of all film I’m unsure of the chemical process of, but living in a very temperate climate our building is unlikely to reach the temperatures at which it combusts even if our HVAC fails in a power outage. Small desert climate museums may not have this luxury so these items should be kept in a cold storage situation to minimize the fire risk.

Arson is always a risk for any structure and special care not to leave combustibles in accessible locations outside the building is an important safety precaution.

Fire can also lead to smoke damage, and water damage due to sprinkler systems or fire fighting efforts. This water damage can even happen in areas not affected by the fire.  My building pre-dates sprinkler systems so we don’t have to worry about them activating when there’s smoke… on the other hand, holy crap we don’t have sprinkler systems… AHHHHHHHHHHH.

I try to maintain a good relationship with the Fire Marshal and assist the local fire department in having maps of our building, keeping our emergency exits clear, and alerting them to the location to any known hazardous collection items they might need to be aware of in a worst-case scenario.

Fire Bad. Prevention Good.

Fire Prevention Good. Bears Wearing Pants Bad.