24.02.2024 Sustainability

Climate change and mitigating risk to art collections: the importance of protecting paintings

  1. Ampel-unter-wasser

by Cristina Resti

Recent climate events have shown how the intensity of natural events can lead to destructive situations. This is why protecting paintings is essential to migitate the risks.

Recent climatic events have forcefully demonstrated how the intensity of natural events such as rainfall, storms and hail can give rise to accumulations of water, creating destructive floods. In addition, intense winds or tornadoes can easily uncover roofs, shatter skylights and windows, uproot trees and cause damage to neighboring homes.

The alteration of the water cycle and temperature as well as the frequency of extreme events such as floods and droughts will increasingly impact our heritage. To meet future challenges, it will be necessary to adopt prevention and safety strategies, starting with the identification of risk scenarios.

But let us see how a collector can implement a plan for hazard assessment, risk mitigation and prioritization by applying it to his or her own collection.

 

IDENTIFICATION OF RISKS

Geographical, topographical, and climatic conditions are decisive in determining how much a location is at risk, which is why it is always advisable to know the territory in which one lives. One should check on the local hydrogeological hazard of reference and the return timeframe of catastrophic events on risk maps. The insurer can be an excellent interlocutor in this case. Once the environmental and natural risks to a given geographical area, even historically, have been identified, it will be  necessary  to assess their connection in terms of probability and impact of the event on the location of the risk (building) as well as the items contained therein: identification of water accumulation locations such as underground or basement floors, sloped ramps, or pocket terraces (cut-away roof terrace), solar terraces, confluence of several roof pitches and rainwater drains.

Maintenance and inspection of roofs, gutters, flashings, and skylights should be carried out at least twice a year. Drains must be inspected regularly, as climate change has introduced the phenomena of heavy rainfall concentrated in a few minutes. Therefore, many rainwater disposal systems are now inadequate and undersized.

 

HOW TO PREPARE

Once the risks have been identified and the possible scenarios have been catalogued (flooding due to heavy rain, flooding due to overflowing watercourses, flooding due to roof leaks or breaches), it will be necessary to undertake preventive activities to mitigate the risks and protect the works of art.

External protection actions will be carried out in relation to the structural characteristics of the building containing the assets to be protected, also in relation to their dislocation. If the works are located on the ground floor it will be necessary to protect them by raising them off the ground, thus preventing contact with water in the event of flooding. But in the case of more serious flooding situations, it would be a good idea to move them to the upper floors of the building in areas identified as safe. For this it will be appropriate to place works on the ground floor that can easily and quickly be moved or works made of materials resistant to water and humidity.

In order to be able to use a rescue order, a list (the list attached to the insurance policy can also be used) of the works to be evacuated, called the Priority List, must be drawn up.

Objects that are impossible to remove either because of their weight/size or because of their large number (e.g. books that make up a library) should be set up from the outset with the 'safe room' concept in mind. For objects that are easy to move, on the other hand, materials for packing them, such as plastic boxes, tyvek, plastic bags, etc., must be prepared well beforehand.

Always remember that in the event of a flood, property will be damaged not only by water, but also by mud, debris, and suspended oil matter.

We do not recommend placing collections of any kind in basements or semi-basements, especially paper materials such as archival/library collections or other assets consisting of organic materials.

In the event of seepage from the roof, one should have plastic material to cover the goods and to set up all the paintings with small spacers from the wall that allow water to percolate down the wall without contact with the work.

 

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT

At the time of an emergency, the emergency management instructions or evacuation orders issued by the relevant bodies must always  be  followed.  Having a clear prioritization of actions  to be  taken  in an emergency is essential in order not to endanger people's safety.

  • Preparing a list of useful telephone numbers to call in the event of an emergency is one of the  most important but often underestimated preparations.
  • The emergency kit should include: batteries, gloves, rubber boots, mask, torches, scissors, tape and plastic packing material. At the time of the emergency, if the event will have affected several entities (e.g. flood or inundation) it will be difficult to find materials of any kind. Plastic materials will also help in the event of roof leaks, to cover objects that cannot be moved (in situ protection).
  • Refer to a disaster recovery company that can support you in the event of the artwork being moved to another location. Ensure that whoever removes the assets follows a priority rescue order, evacuating  the most important objects from the room or floor affected by the disaster event, taking into account ease of removal, speed and personal safety. The Priority List will be used to do this.

 

Here are some useful actions to be performed safely and according to the possibilities of locating objects and their maneuverability:

  • Give priority to goods made of materials most susceptible to damage in the event of flooding, such as: wood, paper, photographs, paintings on canvas and wood, and objects made of organic materials.
  • Place the paintings on canvas or board horizontally and free them from frames and glass.
  • Allow the goods to dry out if possible, by bringing the relative humidity below 40 percent through dehumidification systems, ensure good air circulation in the rooms with fans, and keep the room temperature below 19 degrees to avoid/reduce the growth of mould.
  • For materials consisting of paper, such as books (if wet, but not soaked with water), one can proceed by inserting sheets of blotting paper every 15 to 20 pages and replacing them several times so as to promote the gradual absorption of water. 
  • For completely wet paper materials proceed with drying or freezing within 72 hours of damage.
  • Notify your trusted restorer and, if you are the owner of a cultural asset, immediately report to the relevant bodies, advising them of the urgency of implementing emergency measures involving moving and securing the listed asset.

 

THE POST-EMERGENCY

  • Contact companies specialising in cleaning up after floods/flooding and providing dehumidifiers to manage environmental parameters (temperature and humidity).
  • Activate a monitoring routine for assets still in situ.
  • Take appropriate security measures to prevent theft or vandalism.