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Notre Dame fire prompts museum dense Ohio county to regroup

May 11, 2019
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Spring Hill Historic Home Director Samantha Kay Smith shows off the archives at the historic home-letters, diaries, wills and other documents as well as family photos from the Wales families. (Kevin Whitlock/The Independent via AP)
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Spring Hill Historic Home Director Samantha Kay Smith shows off the archives at the historic home-letters, diaries, wills and other documents as well as family photos from the Wales families. (Kevin Whitlock/The Independent via AP)

MASSILLON, Ohio (AP) — Historical sites do their best to be prepared in case of an emergency.

When area museum professionals learned a fire had broken out in the historic Cathedral of Notre Dame earlier this month, their hearts sank.

Quickly their thoughts returned home to the institutions and treasures they have been tasked with protecting.

Many local institutions have emergency preparedness plans, but officials admit there is only so much they can do to prepare for disasters such as fires, flooding or tornadoes.

Earlier this month, museums and other organizations that preserve collections around the world marked MayDay, an annual call to action to improve disaster readiness that encourages museum professionals to review and update disaster plans, conduct building evacuation drills, eliminate hazards and identify and label priority collections for evacuation during an emergency, among other initiatives.

Stark County is home to more than 80 museums and historical sites ranging from the Canal Fulton Heritage House and Old Canal Days Museum, Spring Hill Historic Home and three accredited museums: the Massillon Museum, Pro Football Hall of Fame and Canton Museum of Art.

Emergency plans are a big conversation in the museum world, said Samantha Kay Smith, director of Spring Hill Historic Home in Massillon.

“When you see something like (Notre Dame) happening or the fire at the National Museum of Brazil, you stop and think,” Smith said. The National Museum “lost not only a beautiful building, but it was the only place that had recordings of indigenous languages. We know what we have and what the importance of it is in the future.”

Smith, along with Kimberly Kenney, executive director of the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, were among peers at an Ohio Museum Association conference when they learned about the Notre Dame fire.

“When it was announced what was happening, it was like the whole room just deflated,” Kenney said. “It was so shocking. When this happens, it brings all the issues to the forefront. What would you do if it happened to us? What happens to these treasures when they are gone?”

McKinley Museum has an emergency plan in place, Kenney said. Like many museums and historical sites, it has a smoke detection system and heat sensors. Fire doors are between exhibits.

Kenney’s team undergoes regular training for emergencies. Systems are tested regularly and kept up to date, she said.

Many times, she said, the best defense is making sure staff and volunteers are aware of their surroundings.

It is a see something, say something mentally, Kenney said. She encourages those working and volunteering in the museum to speak up if something seems out of place or they smell something.

“We are as best prepared as we can be,” she said. “The whole museum field, we know that everything we are doing is so precious to the community we serve. We preserve the history of our community, and we take that very seriously.”

At the Massillon Museum, emergency preparedness plans evolve. Museum staff is gearing up for yet another update to their plan as their multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation project is nearing completion.

The museum will create a new plan based on the new footprint of the building, Executive Director Alexander Nicholis Coon said. The process could take six months to a year to complete.

There is a lot that goes into planning for an emergency, Nichols Coon said, and it’s more than large-scale emergencies such as fires or flooding.

The plans require thorough examination of evacuation plans, recording where everything is stored, designation of items that could not be replaced — Nicholis Coon points out in a museum that’s everything — as well as where items can be relocated in case of an event.

The Massillon Museum has a partnership with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to serve as a temporary location if either collection needs to be moved off-site.

During the construction project, which has been underway since October 2017, disaster preparedness has been enhanced, Nicholis Coon said.

They’ve increased pest monitoring and examination of building systems. During closing procedures, staff members are checking every door and ensuring all lights and other construction equipment is powered off and unplugged.

The extra work has increased closing procedures by about 30 minutes for the museum’s small staff, but Nicholis Coon said it is necessary to ensure the safety of the museum and its collection.

Regularly, the museum’s security systems are checked, as well as batteries in exit signs. Regular inspections check fire suppression equipment, including extinguishers and sprinkler systems.

During her 17 years at the museum, Nicholis Coon has seen events that have threatened the collection, but having a staff prepared to monitor and quickly respond to the threats is key, she said.

Boilers, vents, HVAC systems, windows, ducts, and access panels in the ceiling can be potential dangers to the items preserved in the museum, she said.

Collection items are always stored away from these areas, Nicholis Coon added.

In the new construction, designers were deliberate in many decisions, such as not adding additional restrooms in upper floors. All of the museum’s restrooms are in the basement level.

“It was conscious decision,” she explained. “Any possible flooding could threaten the collection. With the new construction, we were very thoughtful.”

In the new Paul Brown Museum, a dry sprinkler system was installed so that water wasn’t sitting in the pipes, Nicholis Coon said.

Kenney said many museums choose not to place sprinkler systems in their exhibit and collection areas because they could do more harm if they are activated, especially if it is a localized fire.

Smaller organizations, such as Spring Hill Historic Home and local historical societies that manage historical sites and artifacts, have to manage emergencies like their larger counterparts but often fewer resources.

“Most of our funding is going to keeping the lights on and providing quality content and programming for our community,” Smith said, leaving little to dedicate to disaster planning.

Spring Hill, built around 1821 by Thomas and Charity Rotch, holds various treasures detailing the earliest days of the Kendal and Massillon communities.

For more than 150 years, the house was home to the Rotch and Wales family, was a sheep farm and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

While funding is limited, the house is equipped with a security system that includes heat, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Fire extinguishers are hidden throughout the home.

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Information from: The Independent, http://www.indeonline.com

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