By Imogen Smith

The water has receded. The power is back. After the devastation of super storm Sandy, life for most New Yorkers has returned to normal. But because so many dance companies and performing arts organizations are based in lower Manhattan, Sandy struck an unprecedented blow to the dance community, causing devastating losses of artistic materials to flood-waters, as well as interruptions of work. The Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC), the sole national organization with a mission to document, preserve, and increase access to America’s dance legacy, received several urgent appeals from artists and companies seeking advice about recovering damaged materials. Many more companies, whether harmed by Sandy or not, are thinking afresh about how they can secure their holdings of costumes, sets, videos, paper records, and digital files. The DHC would like to offer an overview of emergency preparedness and recommend steps for action that dance organizations should be taking right now.

Independent artists and dance companies may not think of their physical holdings as archives, but the needs — for secure storage and good records management — are the same as those of archival repositories, albeit with the added need for ready access to materials used on a daily or regular basis. Archives are affected by various types of emergencies both natural and human-made: floods, caused not only by storms but by water main breakage, leaks from pipes, or activated sprinklers; fire, including smoke damage; structural damage from earthquakes or hurricanes, as well as long-term damage from mold outbreaks and insect infestation. Hazards such as these can be mitigated by having a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan in place. A viable plan would both create the safest possible storage for materials, and put in place swift and effective steps for remediation in the event of disaster. All institutions housing archival-type materials are encouraged to write a formal disaster plan, ensuring that risks have been assessed and that whatever staff are available to respond to a crisis have reliable information on what steps to take. Institutions housing archival-type materials are encouraged to write a formal disaster plan, ensuring that risks have been assessed and that staff available to respond to a crisis have reliable information on what steps to take.

Creating an Emergency Plan
More in-depth guidelines for writing an emergency plan can be found on the website of the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

  • Identify risks
    In order to create a disaster plan, it is first vital to assess what particular risks threaten your materials, both in your primary headquarters and in any off-site storage. Are you near water, in an area prone to flooding or storms, and is there any history of leaks in your building(s)? Are you in an area vulnerable to earthquakes or tornadoes? Are you located in a damp climate, and is your building fully climate-controlled? Are there security risks in areas where materials are stored? Are you near any industries or businesses that might create a risk of fires or contamination by hazardous chemicals? Carefully assess your building: what systems are in place to detect and prevent fires? Are electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems well-maintained and regularly monitored? Is there any history or signs of insect or rodent infestation? Next, assess the types of materials you have, and determine what their vulnerabilities are. (Basic information on specific preservation/storage requirements for different types of archival materials can be found in the Dance Heritage Coalition’s publication Beyond Memory. Notice any possible threats such as water pipes, windows, radiators, or other fire hazards located near important materials.
  • Take steps to mitigate risks.
    Improve storage to increase the safety of your materials. Lack of storage space is a problem for many dance companies, but you should endeavor to avoid storing valuable materials near any potential sources of leaks (heating or water pipes, bathrooms or kitchens, windows), near light or heating sources (especially important for moving image materials, which need a cool, dry, stable climate), or in basements. If items must be stored in areas that have a potential for flooding, elevate them off the floor on pallets, and enclose them in plastic tubs, which can also protect from dust, or in steel cabinets. Videos and discs should be stored in enclosed plastic containers, not paper sleeves. Costumes should be stored clean in costume boxes, or in plastic enclosures if there is risk of flooding. Papers and photographs should be stored in sturdy, clean boxes on metal shelves, or in folders in filing cabinets. (Acid-free enclosures and mylar sleeves are ideal and should be considered as an investment for your most valuable paper materials.)

Check on materials regularly; organization and uncrowded storage not only improve the long-term stability of archival materials, but ensure that damage from water, vermin, mold, etc. does not go unnoticed. In addition, having a complete inventory of your collections will allow you to keep track of your materials, where they are stored, and how they are prioritized for storage and salvage. Working with an archival consultant or intern is the best way to create an inventory, and the process can incorporate assessment of condition and preservation risks. This assessment will enable you to prioritize materials that need to be re-housed and/or digitized. Funding for preservation projects is available through the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dance Heritage Coalition is a good resource for advice on funding and planning if you are considering a project to improve your archives. Dance Heritage Coaltion provides contact information and lists of services provided, including archival assessments.) The DHC can advise on finding archives specialists who are also dance specialists and attuned to the needs of dance companies. Connecting with an archivist can help your company to make decisions going forward, and provide long-term support for your collections.

Remember that digital assets are also vulnerable. If you store digital photos, moving images, or files on hard drives, be aware of the risk of hard drive failure, which can wipe out your collections. All hard drives are susceptible to corruption and failure, and environmental factors (moisture, heat) can increase the risk. Store important materials on two drives kept in different locations. Use mirrored RAID drives, which have built-in redundancy for greater security. Establish a schedule for migrating data. Ideally, keep one drive for storage only and restrict access to it, so files are not accidentally overwritten, renamed, or deleted. Be sure to name files so they can be easily found. If you digitize analog materials, do not discard the originals.

Be sure that you have taken commonsense steps to improve the security of your building(s). Make sure you have smoke alarms (tested regularly) and fire extinguishers, and that you know how to use them. Despite the risk of flooding, sprinklers ARE recommended for archival storage areas. Wet materials can often be salvaged; burned materials cannot. Protect your records against theft and vandalism by storing them in areas to which access can be restricted with secure locks, and by writing a use policy establishing who has access, and systematically monitoring their use.

Plan your emergency response.

Familiarizing yourself with emergency response steps before disaster strikes saves vital time in the event of unforeseen crises. Know what to do with damaged items; time is often of the essence. To have answers at your fingertips to remedy all sorts of damage, Heritage Preservation, the national institute for conservation, has put its recommended actions on an “Emergency Response and Salvage (ERS) Wheel”™. Good news for Android users: the wheel has recently become available as a free downloadable app through Google Play (inactive- April 2024).

For Apple devices, find the ERS here. Coming soon, the ERS for BlackBerry, an updated Apple version for all iOS platforms, and ERS in Spanish! In addition, the ERS is available as a durable, handy magnetic chart, which can be augmented by the handbook Field Guide to Emergency Response. Heritage Preservation also offers many helpful resources including workshops, assessments, and extensive online materials that can answer questions about protecting your legacy materials.

  • The Council of State Archivists has produced another useful resource, the Pocket Response Plan, a concise document for recording information needed by staff in the event of disaster.
  • Establish a chain of communications and staffing plan for responding to emergencies. Who lives nearby and is able to check on materials and make preparations for anticipated weather events? Create a contact list of organizations (such as Heritage Preservation and NEDCC) that can offer emergency advice and assistance, as well as vendors that offer services like freeze-drying and dehumidification for paper materials, and potential funding sources like FEMA; make sure this contact list is available to all staff members. Keep hard copies of these contacts, and of your emergency plan, in case power outages make it impossible to access your computers.
  • Purchase supplies such as sponges, flashlights, rubber gloves, fans (battery-powered), and plastic dropcloths to cover materials. (A full list of recommended emergency supplies can be found at NEDCC.) Store them securely in a single location. Establish contact and liaisons with building management and local emergency responders, and try to insure access to your collections in the event of an emergency.

Be sure to maintain your plan, keep it up to date, and familiarize new staff with it.

“Comprehensiveness, simplicity, and flexibility” are the keys to a good emergency plan, according to the NEDCC. While it may seem like a daunting effort for a company whose first priority is creating and mounting new work, touring or teaching, it will not only ward off potentially catastrophic losses of your artistic legacy, but it will have broader benefits. Better organization and storage of archival materials will make them more accessible and useful for artists, dancers and scholars. Every conversation and scenario you talk through as part of the process of creating a formal plan will help you to be more prepared for an emergency

Imogen Sara Smith is the project manager for the Dance Heritage Coalition, and also works in the New York Public Library’s Dance Division. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, and her writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Moving Image Source, Dance Chronicle, Bright Lights Film Journal, and other venues.

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