Planning for the Unexpected at WMA

By Joseph Govednik, Museum Curator, Foss Waterway Seaport & President, Washington Museum Association

Being a recipient to the Wanda Chin Grant is something I am grateful for.  Without the assistance of this grant my attendance, and professional development opportunities associated with participation, would likely not happen this year.  The WMA annual meeting in Phoenix was a treasure of inspiration, education, and networking opportunities. 

I am “classically trained” in museum collections management, and since this is my primary interest in the museum world, I often gravitate to sessions focusing on collections management, and sometimes exhibits or curatorial topics.  This conference was no exception and I attended sessions including “Find/Create/Organize:  An Archive for the Small Museum,” “Education Collections:  Fact or Friction,” and “The Community Curator: Bridging the Gap Between the Museum and the Public.”  It’s important to keep current in our field and these and other sessions I attended were beneficial to my tool kit of knowledge.  As informative as these sessions were, it was when I ventured outside of my territory that value to this conference became most apparent.  The session “Planning for the Unplannable:  Physical Security Challenges in Museums” stepped outside my traditional box, yet addressed many needs of my own organization.  I want to thank Danielle Eaton from Puget Sound Navy Museum, Lindy Dosher from Navy Museums Northwest, and Jeff Barta from Naval History and Heritage Command for their insightful program.

So, what made “Planning for the Unplannable” so relevant?  In a real world any kind of disaster can occur, and are the museum staff trained for this?  I have attended numerous disaster planning sessions over the years, all of which revolve around museum collections and recovery and preservation after fire, water, and earthquake situations.  None have discussed shelter-in-place, active shooter, unruly visitor, trespassing, and other problems that could occur.  These are not covered in graduate school classes either. 

My organization is undergoing a multi-phased and multi-year construction project.  Our facility changes configuration every couple years.  Our fire suppression system, alarms, and doors change along with the building upgrades.  Being an understaffed organization, like so many other non-profits, I have brought up the need for facility procedures as our building evolves.  Does the staff all know where the fire alarms, first aid kits, and muster station are located?  How do we communicate internally should there be a situation with an irate or physically abusive visitor?  We are located across from a major industrial site.  What if there was a railroad derailment or caustic chemical release?  Can we shelter in place and for how long?  What if there was an incident in an adjacent building where authorities ordered a shelter in place due to criminal activity?  Would our facility have the resources of food and water to feed the 80 children on a field trip for the next 14 hours until the all clear?  These are some of the questions we discussed at this session.  Some other suggestions that came from this session included:

  • Inviting local first responders to tour your facility.  Nobody knows the building like the staff, and nobody knows the building like those who don’t work there.  Get your responders to know your building.
  • Create policies on access and securing doors.  If you are in a large or multi-floor building, are there barriers to entry from one level to another?  Do staff sign in or check in upon arrival or leaving?
  • Conduct drills with your staff.  Test them to see their response time to a heart-attack victim, locking down the building during violent episode, or clearing the building during a fire. 
  • Keep emergency supplies not only for your staff, but your visitors too. 

Within my organization we have discussed the need for a facility procedure book as a reference to open and close procedures, emergency procedures, and a resource for general operations at our museum.  This session addressed many areas needing documentation of procedures at our museum.

I’m thankful for WMA’s Program Committee’s selection of great session topics.  In this case I stepped outside my discipline, and this enriched what I can bring back to the table at my museum.  I highly encourage attendees to WMA conferences to take advantage of the diversity in topics covered.  If you have great experience in exhibits, go and attend a session on Board development, if you are an educator, take a session on collections management, and if you are an administrator, take a session on exhibition development.  Learning about what your co-workers do may help everyone in the museum work better as a team.  It may even help you advance in your career as one who becomes a jack of all trades in museum operations.

Next year in Edmonton, please think about the sessions which apply directly to your duties at work, but also consider learning about the other important parts that make the museum machine work smoothly.  It may give you a better appreciation of the work your colleagues do at your institution. 

Joseph Govednik is the Museum Curator of the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.  He also serves on the Boards for the Washington Museum Association and Heritage League of Pierce County.  Joseph received his MBA/MA in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University and MA in Anthropology from California State University



Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.