Pictured above: Project staff during the controlled burn workshop. Left to right: Collections Care Trainer Adrienne Berney, Disaster Preparedness Coordinator Matthew Hunt, Administrative Assistant Michelle Vaughn, and Project Director LeRae Umfleet.
Thousands of visitors enjoy North Carolina’s libraries, archives, museums, and historical sites every day. The Asheville Art Museum, Greensboro Public Library, Cape Fear Museum, Hickory Arts & Sciences Center, and Historic Hope Plantation represent just a handful of these diverse cultural heritage institutions, which seek to educate, inspire, and entertain visitors through a variety of collections and exhibits.
But what would happen to these institutions in the event of a natural or manmade disasterω Would they be preparedω Would vital resources be protectedω
This is where the North Carolina Connecting to Collections (C2C) program comes in. A multifaceted initiative that originated with the state’s Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR), the C2C has brought essential training and expertise in collections care and disaster preparedness to cultural heritage institutions statewide.
Watch a brief overview video on the
North Carolina Connecting to Collections program
The NCDCR completed the planning phase of the grant in partnership with the North Carolina Museums Council, the Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies, and the North Carolina Preservation Consortium. During this phase, stakeholders sought to identify and assess collections preservation and disaster preparedness activities in the state's cultural heritage community.
The C2C project had the benefit of the 10-year Exploring Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO) project, which the state library had recently completed. During the ECHO initiative, staff traveled throughout the state to identify each and every cultural heritage institution. It was the first comprehensive survey of its kind to be done in North Carolina.
According to LeRae Umfleet, C2C project manager and NCDCR chief of collections management, the C2C was a logical outgrowth of what had been learned during the ECHO project. "ECHO asked the yes or no question – ‘do you have a disaster plan,’" she explains. "The planning grant helped us flesh out those statistics."
Using the funds provided by the IMLS grant, Umfleet and her staff conducted nine forums from one end of the state to the other – "from the mountains to the ocean," as she describes – while an online portion of the project created a centralized database of resources for collections care and disaster preparedness.
More than 300 representatives – who ranged from unpaid volunteers to longtime professionals in the field – from 147 institutions participated in the forums. They were encouraged by project staff to talk about the challenges they face in caring for their collections, as well as brainstorm potential solutions. They were also asked to consider the status of their disaster planning initiatives.
"Most representatives knew they needed the help – they just didn’t have the expertise," says Umfleet. In some cases, "people just needed to vent," she adds. "The biggest source of frustration was the economy. Donations are dropping off, and institutions are feeling the pinch of budget cuts from the recession."
More than half of the state’s cultural heritage institutions operate on an annual budget of $50,000 or less. "They are just trying to keep the lights on," explains Umfleet. "They can’t afford to worry about collections care."
The forums provided Umfleet and her team with valuable feedback that would eventually help them realize the implementation phase of the C2C. "We learned that these institutions – regardless of scope, size, or funding – had basic deficiencies. They needed assistance with everything from handling and storage of exhibits to pest management to preservation," says Umfleet. "We began to build a framework and a vision of what a statewide training initiative might look like."
Although the number of North Carolina institutions without written disaster plans had dropped from 72 percent to 45 percent, many institutions that have a plan do not employ staff trained to carry out the plan, conduct adequate training exercises, or possess a kit of supplies for emergency collections salvage. As for collections care, the C2C forums found that collections are increasing at a regular rate in all institutions, while budgets for collections care are decreasing.
Furthermore, representatives from the state’s cultural heritage institutions expressed a need for hands-on training and face-to-face-interaction – not a webinar. "We learned that people want us to come to them. They needed a regional workshop within two hours of their location," says Umfleet. "The training had to be free or low cost, because representatives would be paying out of their own pockets. It also had to be day-long or shorter, and held when their institutions were closed because they can’t take time off."
Now in the implementation phase of the grant, the C2C has conducted some 35 workshops on collections care and disaster preparedness throughout the state, bringing useful tools and resources to more than 750 representatives from North Carolina’s cultural heritage institutions. More workshops are planned throughout the summer.
Collections care workshops cover both basic care for novices as well as specialized topics such as box making, textiles, and painting conservation. A partner organization, the Society of North Carolina Archivists, conducted an Archival Bootcamp for individuals who are on the front lines of caring for records but have not had the benefit of formal training. "We want to support people at their level of knowledge, not scare them away," says Umfleet. "The workshops are designed both for people who have experience and for those who have very little background in the field."
The boxes that collections are stored in – known in the trade as "microclimates" – are a particularly hot topic among workshop attendees. "Our collections care instructor has really been listening to what institutions need," says Umfleet. "She’s been testing boxes that can be purchased at Wal-Mart because these institutions have such limited financial resources.
"We’re working to identify economical options for places that have no budget for collections care," she adds.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest achievements of the collections care workshops was educating attendees about what they could not accomplish themselves. "A lot of people just want to know what they can and can’t do," says Umfleet. "We tell them some of the basics of collections care they can do, but we also say, ‘here’s where you stop and call a conservator.’ They thank us over and over. It’s great when you see the light bulb come on over people’s heads."
For the disaster preparedness component of Connecting to Collections, Umfleet was lucky enough to find an instructor-firefighter "who could speak the language of first responders but who also understood how museums work," she says. "He’s teaching us how to slow down, calm down, and react properly."
The disaster preparedness curriculum covers both natural and manmade disasters – with emphasis on the most likely sources of damage, water and fire. Umfleet recalls a particularly effective fire workshop conducted in February of this year. "We created a mock museum and burned it," she says. "The participants were broken into groups and had to figure out what to salvage and how. We wanted them to think, ‘our museum has just burned, now what do we doω’" Another fire recovery workshop will be held in Asheboro in June.
Other workshops included a "Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irene" session held in the coastal town of Hatteras, NC. Several workshops were conducted on the topic of SKYWARN®, a volunteer program with nearly 290,000 trained severe weather spotters that provide reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.
With the C2C now in its second year, Umfleet and her team at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources are looking at a future beyond the IMLS grant. "When we began this project, we hoped that collections care and disaster preparedness training for our cultural heritage institutions would be folded into the normal procedures of the department," says Umfleet. Unfortunately, the department has been severely cut. "We’re losing existing staff, and there’s no real growth plan for the future," she adds. "The economy has created some obstacles."
But Umfleet is undaunted. "I don’t let it get me down. I’m not sure what form it will take, but we’ll continue the outreach that C2C envisioned," she says. "Because we get a lot of people thanking us."