Disaster Planning Code Red – What Can We Learn from the Tragedies in Egypt?

With the  atmosphere in Egypt being what it is, most historians and archaeologists knew it was only a matter of time before aspects of the rich Egyptian history and material culture were destroyed.  Among all the other heartbreaking stories of the massive loss of human life and looting, the story of the Mallawi Museum in Egypt stands out as one of the greatest cultural tragedies in recent history.

The Mallawi Museum after looters took most of the collections

According to the Egypt Heritage Task Force post, around 1050 artifacts from the Mallawi Museum were looted during the nationwide protesting and unrest.  During the event, the security guards were shot at and the museum director was injured.  More recently, reports have come out that the remaining 49 objects that were too large to be looted have been burned in a fire.  In addition to the looting of institutions, many archaeological sites have been left unguarded and illegal digging has taken place to uncover items that may never be recorded by historians.

The task force has posted images of the looted artifacts online in an attempt to stop auction houses and collectors from purchasing these items illegally.  However, the museum is still doing an inventory, and not all items have been photographed or accounted for.

Disaster Planning is something that I have talked about several times, and it is a hot topic among museum professionals.  I’ve stressed the importance of having a plan and given examples of the terrors that can befall museums due to natural or human forces.

Carbonite_Online_Backup_165465Even if you do have a disaster plan at your site, how are the files backed up?  Do you have online secure storage that you can access in an emergency such as that at the Mallawi Museum?  An accurate inventory, with images and video, is integral to the protection and safety of any collection.  Multiple backups of those files is even more important – without back-ups, what was the point of all the work that went in to the cataloguing process?  What if your external hard drivethat you so cautiously duplicated information to was looted or burned in a fire along with the artifacts?

Google-DriveIn the last month, I personally know of at least two museums that had computer failure and lost back-ups or even originals of documents, files, photographs, and more.  By backing up to an online service such as Carbonite, DropBox, or even Google Drive, that information can be accessed with relative ease should the worst situation come to pass.

Currently, the Blount Mansion is going through institutional documents, and the photographs we find are scanned to a laptop, then uploaded to Google Drive where the entire staff and outside consultants can access them from anywhere.  The photos are also backed up online through Carbonite.

A great historic photo that shows how artifacts were displayed in the past at the Mansion.
A great historic photo that shows how artifacts were displayed in the past at the Mansion.

As we move forward with construction at the Mansion, the potential for disasters becomes more real.  Part of the process of moving our collections will include photographing each room, artifact, and position in the room, as well as condition reports.  We plan to use an iPad, connected to Google Drive, to store the photographs until we can load them into Past Perfect with multimedia (which will also be backed up externally and on Carbonite).  Hopefully this can help us to avoid any problems we encounter in the future.  Additionally, keeping a regularly backed up external hard drive off site in a secure location is a good idea to keep those items safe.

To end this post on a happier note, moments ago the Egypt Heritage Task Force announced that 2 statues of Osiris that were looted have been recovered and stored in a safe(r) location!

Lastly, a colleague of mine asked if the events in Egypt should prompt museums to allow visitors to take pictures in museums?  If so, how can you collect those photographs to access them in the future?  How can we use Flickr or Facebook or other platforms to share these photos, without compromising the artifacts or security, while also engaging the community?  I’m going to think on this and follow up; please post your suggestions in the comments!

3 replies to “Disaster Planning Code Red – What Can We Learn from the Tragedies in Egypt?

  1. I’ve seen an increase in museum events inviting participants to use an event-specific hashtag when they post images, but I haven’t come across museums assigning similar codes or tag words to objects on exhibit. It would be interesting to see how many visitors include key words with their images if they were available, or even if a QR code (or something similar) could be incorporated to automatically add those tags to an image.

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