Swift action by museum curators helped deal with a small flood at the museums collection stores.
Water leaked into the collections store on 7 July depositing two inches of floodwater into the store. A member of council staff detected the flooding when attending the site the following morning and immediately raised the alarm with the museum’s curators.
The museum’s curatorial team quickly attended the scene and activated their well-rehearsed emergency plans to carefully move items from the collections to a place of safety on a priority basis before bailing out, drying and cleaning the store.
Following the incident, the museums team informed major stakeholders with an interest in the collections, principally Museum of London Archaeology and Historic England, with whom they remain in regular contact.
An initial assessment by the museum team’s conservator of the damage to artefacts in storage indicates that no serious damage has been caused to any of the Prittlewell Prince collection due to the resulting increase in humidity in the stores. However, the condition of all affected artefacts will continue to be closely monitored. The majority of significant finds are currently on display in the museum. The Council’s Cabinet made a decision to announce that the flooding had occurred once we were in full receipt of the outcome of this assessment, hence the interval between the incident and the announcement.
However, some original EKCO Radios from the museum’s collection which are not on display have been damaged, primarily through water staining and peeling veneers.
Cllr Kevin Robinson, cabinet member for business, culture and tourism, said: “Our collections are a source of immense pride in our town, so I am pleased to report that swift action by our museums team has saved finds from the Prittlewell Prince collection from any serious damage.
“I was saddened to hear that some items from the museum’s EKCO radio collection in particular have been damaged but draw strength from the knowledge that they are in expert hands and I am assured that every endeavour has been made to minimise the impact of the flooding on these items.
“Our collections are once again safe and sound and in expert care. The council’s curatorial team has a wealth of expertise in caring for historical artefacts, gathered from regional museums, national museums and private sectors from Plowden and Smith, National Trust, Houses of Parliament, V&A, Tyne and Wear Archives Museums and the Sainsbury Centre.”
“We are learning from this incident and now looking at how we can further improve and increase the capacity of our storage facilities to prevent something like this happening again. We have already put in place a number of improvements at the stores - including higher shelving, replacing and increasing the number of silica gel bags and carrying out ICT improvements to the humidity monitoring system. However, we will also be considering how we improve facilities for storing our growing historical collections in future and how we go about raising the funds needed to do this.
“We will also be looking at ways to encourage further fundraising to help bring affected items back to their former glory wherever possible so that they can be exhibited again in future and I am hopeful that local residents and businesses will be supportive of this.”
Questions and Answers
Q. Which collections were in storage?
A. The affected facility was storing the council’s collection of EKCO Radios, large social history collection, and some finds from The Prittlewell Princely Burial (please note however that the majority of significant finds are currently on display in the museum).
Q. Which items were damaged?
A. The flooding particularly affected EKCO radios. Damage includes veneer wrinkling, water staining and lacquer cracking and peeling. Despite increased humidity levels rising within the store from the flooding, the curatorial team’s assessment is that the small number of items from the Prittlewell Prince collection in storage has escaped any serious deterioration due to the way they were packed and securely stored in cabinet shelving off of the ground. Ongoing monitoring of their condition is taking place as a precaution. Other items from the Archaeology collection are also being monitored.
Q. Where is the museums store?
A. Many of our collections are of significant historical value and are irreplaceable. Therefore, for security reasons, we have a policy of not openly disclosing the location of the museums specialist stores. Doing so could make our collections a target for thieves and affect our ability to insure them.
Q. How much will the repairs cost?
A. It is too early to fully evaluate the cost of the damage as the drying out and ongoing monitoring will take some time and we will not have a full picture of what conservation is practical until this is complete. It is unlikely that the museum’s small conservation budgets will be able to accommodate much conservation activity and the council is looking to increase fundraising activity and public donations to aid these efforts.
Q. Are the Prittlewell Prince finds safe?
The vast majority of the collection was out of harm’s way as it is not in storage but in the museum itself. The collection that does remain in store was protected by its packaging and the conservation grade storage cabinets that they reside in.
Q. What about the London Shipwreck?
A. Artefacts from the London shipwreck are currently in a programme of conservation with Historic England, so were not on site during this time.
Q. How do you plan for this type of event?
A. The Museum has detailed emergency plans for dealing with various types of emergency, including flooding at its museums’ stores. These plans are in line with the high standards of care expected by the Accreditation scheme for which the Museum is part of. The council’s curatorial team was quickly on site despite being out of hours and spent two days carefully moving items to safety and bailing out the store. They continue to diligently assess and care for the collections.
Q. What have you done to avoid a repeat of this event in future?
A. The source of the leak was immediately repaired. Shelving covers and canopies are being constructed to prevent damage if future flooding were to occur. Low-level shelves are being raised which will keep artefacts safer from any water at ground level and to improve air circulation. Wooden pallets are being replaced with plastic pallets to prevent transfer of moisture through the pallets. All silica gels bags in boxes have been replaced and extra are being added to aid the drying-out process.
Q. Are the museums stores up to the job?
A. The museums specialist stores have been upgraded and improved in recent years, but the number and value of items in the council’s collections has increased over the past years and gradually outgrown the current storage facilities. The council will consider how it invests in the museum stores as part of its budget-setting process.
Q. How can I help?
You can donate directly to the Southend Museum via the donation points at Southend Museum, Prittlewell Priory and Southchurch Hall and Gardens. Money donated here goes directly to the Museum service and will go towards the ongoing care and interpretation of the collection, and upgrading of the museums facilities to allow for new displays.
Alternatively you may choose to donate to the Friends of Southend Museums, an independent charity governed by a board of trustees, who work to promote the activities of Southend’s museums. You find out more about becoming a member, donating or volunteering by visiting the Southend Museums website.