A Strategy to Increase Cooperation for Disaster
some Australian examples for saving resources and raising awareness
Head of Conservation, National Gallery of Australia
GPO Box 1150
Canberra ACT 2600
A 1998 report by the Australian National Audit Office found many
deficiencies in Disaster Preparedness at four major national cultural
institutions in Canberra, Australia. While it was recognised that
many deficiencies were due to lack of resources, it was nevertheless
necessary to urgently address these problems. As a result, cooperation
strategies were developed by representatives from all cultural and
scientific institutions in the city to improve disaster preparedness.
This has included the development of a Memorandum of Understanding
providing for mutual emergency assistance; sharing of information
and equipment; and joint training to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Training strategies stress the importance of ensuring disaster awareness
at all levels of responsibility, including senior executives.
Several different models for disaster preparedness cooperation
used in Australia and elsewhere are briefly compared. The Canberra
model could be modified to suit many different situations where
museum professionals must achieve results with limited staffing
and restricted funding.
Preventive conservation, disaster recovery, disaster prevention,
disaster plan, museums, cultural collections, scientific collections,
The prevention of disasters and the organisation of disaster recovery
operations are serious risk management responsibilities for museums
throughout the world. Despite its importance it is often difficult
to get the resources required for developing a disaster plan and
purchasing of materials and equipment.
This paper presents strategies developed by some museum professionals
in Canberra, the national capital of Australia, to meet the challenge
of limited staff availability and tight budgets for disaster preparedness.
In most large museums, galleries, archives, and libraries in Australia
materials conservators (known in Europe as conservator-restorers)
are responsible for developing a Disaster Plan for their institution.
In the event of a major disaster it is also conservators who usually
lead the disaster recovery process. In smaller institutions there
may be only one or two staff with broad responsibilities for the
collection, and in these cases a building manager or a curator may
be responsible for disaster preparedness.
This paper explores factors influencing successful cooperation
on disaster preparedness between institutions, analyses training
requirements both within and across institutions, proposes some
ideas for further development and considers how this model can be
Canberra is a small city of approximately 300,000 people but has
a disproportionately large number of cultural and scientific collections.
This is because of the presence of national collecting institutions
and the concentration of government departments and universities.
Report of the Australian National Audit Office on Safeguarding
Our National Collections
In 1998 the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) examined a
large number of collection management issues at four major national
cultural institutions in Canberra: the Australian War Memorial (AWM),
the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Museum of
Australia (NMA) and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Many
of the concerns related to safeguarding of collections in storage
areas, particularly since most institutions typically have over
80% of their collections in storage and only small percentage on
One of the auditors was a former curator at the National Museum
of Australia so it was perhaps inevitable that the report would
conclude that Disaster Preparedness was less than optimal, although
the report recognised that resource issues were a significant factor.
Recommendation 9 of ANAO report  required each of the four institutions
to develop a disaster plan and associated procedures and to implement
regular reviews to ensure plans are updated. The ANAO report also
required each institution to send progress reports on Disaster Planning
Over the last decade most national institutions have reduced staff
numbers but work programs have simultaneously expanded. Indeed the
four national institutions faced efficiency dividends
at the time of the report that forced reductions in staff numbers
by 2% per annum. Risk management has become increasingly important
and recent studies in museums have also placed a strong focus on
cost-effective management of risks to collections, for example Waller
At the time of the ANAO report the author was the Manager of Conservation
at the National Museum of Australia and was thus required to develop
a Disaster Plan at the same time as the museum entered major redevelopment
requiring extensive display preparations and development of a new
building. This seemed an impossible task.
The author had previously been a member of a group of conservators
from different cultural institutions in Sydney providing mutual
emergency assistance in emergencies and this experience suggested
that a similar approach might be considered in Canberra. The mutual
assistance system in Sydney worked well when part of the roof was
torn off the Australian National Maritime Museum during a storm
resulting in extensive water damage to storage areas. The group
in Sydney loaned staff, materials and equipment that greatly speeded
the recovery process and provided disaster recovery experience from
which important lessons were learned. The damage and disruption
from a major fire at National Library of Australia in 1985 were
also well remembered in Canberra.
Encouraging cooperation between institutions in Canberra
There are, however, some differences between the situation in Canberra
and Sydney in terms of organising cooperation:
- Many institutions in Canberra are Commonwealth (federal) government
agencies and have similar styles of operation whereas Sydney had
a mix of Commonwealth, State (provincial) and University institutions
that favoured a more informal arrangement driven by conservators.
- The Commonwealth government tends to be more legalistic and
requirements for insurance for staff attending out-of-hours incidents
suggested a more formal cooperation arrangement was needed.
- Previously the Commonwealth had generally self-insured collections,
but increasing numbers of government-indemnified travelling exhibitions
and requirement for valuation and insurance of collections has
increased the focus of senior management on risk management.
After the publication of ANAO report Dr Bill Jonas, then Director
of the National Museum of Australia, sent a letter to other directors
of national institutions seeking agreement to basic proposals aimed
at meeting the ANAO requirements. The need for some formality in
the agreement was recognised because of the insurance concerns,
the difficulty of obtaining commercial services during particular
periods such as Christmas-New Year holidays, and the need to impose
some limits on the demands that could arise in the event of a major
catastrophe. A meeting of Senior Executives from the different institutions
was proposed to discuss issues arising from the ANAO report and
to explore cooperation.
At the same time, an informal meeting of museum professionals responsible
at the operational level for development of disaster preparedness
met and agreed that cooperation would be beneficial and identified
some practical means for developing a working party with a working
DISACT stands for Disaster Preparedness in the Australian Capital
Territory, which is the regional name for the area around Canberra.
The group includes all the major Commonwealth cultural institutions,
including the four that were investigated by ANAO. Other institutions
include Screen Sound Australia (formerly the National Film and Sound
Archive), the National Archives, the National Herbarium, the Australian
Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and
smaller collections belonging to other government departments including
Defence and the Attorney-Generals Department. The Cultural
Heritage Research Centre of the University of Canberra is represented
since this institution trains conservators and can also assist by
providing student assistance in an emergency who would also benefit
from such experience.
Memorandum of Understanding
With the assistance of Dr Darryl McIntyre, a senior executive at
the National Museum of Australia, the author commenced drafting
a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This document was further developed
through meetings of DISACT representatives to refine the terms of
the agreement. This MOU is now ready for signature by Directors
of seven national institutions with the following elements agreed:
- The stated objective is to improve cooperation between institutions
in the event of a disaster that may affect one or more of the
- Each institution is responsible for development of its own Disaster
Plan but information on the plans may be shared where appropriate
to assist the group.
- The group will aim to have a common standard and format of disaster
plan to increase the efficiency of mutual assistance.
- One annual training exercise will be held on Disaster Recovery
Techniques to be arranged by member institutions on a rotational
basis to improve communication between staff and between institutions.
- An annual seminar will be held on issues relevant to Disaster
Planning to raise disaster awareness.
- Members will circulate lists of disaster equipment available
for inter-institutional loan and information on common use
contracts for disaster recovery services.
- Members agree to provide specialist staff in emergencies and
an agreed method will be used to request emergency assistance
including providing staff from member institutions to assist for
up to two days without undue formality that could delay recovery.
- Each institution will provide indemnity cover for their staff
assisting disaster recovery at other member institutions with
the agreement of their own institution.
- The MOU will be reviewed two years after signature and can include
additional signatories with the agreement of the group.
- Information reports following a significant disaster will be
made available to other institutions to assist in the updating
of disaster plans.
Collaboration at operational levels
While senior executive support has helped to initiate DISACT staff
responsible for disaster management at operational level carry out
most of the work of the group. These are mostly middle-ranking professional
staff and comprise diverse specialists including conservators, registrars,
curators, librarians, building managers and scientists. Meetings
are held approximately every three months with a routine agenda
covering exchange of information, reporting of any disasters, progress
reports on disaster plan development and arrangements for training.
Sharing of information at meetings has proved particularly valuable.
The website of the National Library of Australia has a Disaster
Plan template (http://www.nla.gov.au/policy/disaster.html) that
is widely used in Australia and many interesting variants and adaptations
of the plan have been developed and shared among DISACT members.
Lists of stocks of materials and equipment available for emergency
loan are particularly valuable as damage to a building in a fire
or flood may destroy an institutions supplies. The list has
also helped identify deficiencies in equipment so that forward purchases
of expensive items can be planned. The group has identified the
need for more wet and dry vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers
and large fans since some items cannot easily be hired from commercial
Development of a list of suppliers of emergency services has saved
time since the information is compiled and shared by the DISACT
group. The services and suppliers cover diverse needs including
bulk freezers, freeze-drying, counselling, catering, large dehumidifiers
and carpet driers including after hours service numbers. This information
proved invaluable at the National Museum of Australia when a flood
occurred in the library late at night so a carpet cleaning company
could be easily contacted after hours. Prior agreement for emergency
service contracts avoids the time-delays of the usual three
quotations required by Australian government agencies.
DISACT is involved in several levels of disaster training.
It is vital that senior executives, such as Assistant Directors,
know the risks of a disaster for their institution and clearly understand
their role in an emergency. DISACT arranged a training session presented
by a specialist consultant, Jeavons Baillie, a former conservator
and senior excutive. Senior executives were asked to bring along
their disaster plans to a half-day seminar. From the scenarios and
questions posed, it was evident that institutions where senior executives
knew the disaster plan are far better able to assist recovery operations
and to answer media enquiries, which are typically their responsibility.
Senior Executives from institutions with a Disaster Plan are also
more realistic about the resources required and know that months,
rather than days, are required to properly prepare a Disaster Plan.
They are more likely to accept this information if they hear it
from another executive (such as Baillie) rather than a more junior
staff member such as the Head of Conservation.
Disaster Recovery Teams
A particular feature of DISACT is the agreed need for joint training
of staff at different institutions in Canberra. Joint training in
disaster recovery is organised at least once a year for up to 20
participants from all member institutions. Joint training helps
build links between institutions as the person you train with might
be the one who turns up to help out in a disaster.
Each institution involved in DISACT organises a group training
session on a rotational basis, arranging a course presenter (usually
a consultant), venue and materials. This both reduced workloads
but also develops organisational skills of members, without undue
pressure, since information gathered from past training is passed
on from one institution to the next.
Although the most instructive training is real experience of a
disaster, fortunately this has not arisen too often! Disasters can
be simulated and excellent facilities are available at the Canberra
Institute of Technology where it is possible to safely burn or flood
typical materials such as discarded paper files, wood, plastics,
paintings and old shelves and storage cabinets for realistic disaster
Annual Seminar on disaster issues
The MOU aims to have an annual seminar on relevant topics to raise
awareness among all staff working with Canberras cultural
and scientific collections. In 1999 a half-day seminar was presented.
One talk covered security issues (relevant because of recent revisions
of Australian Standards for security and the impending Sydney 2000
Olympics). The other presentation examined how planning for Y2K
might be utilised to assist Disaster Planning, since cultural institutions
are increasingly vulnerable to loss of collection information (particularly
affecting storage locations) in the event of failure of computer
systems. Topics identified for future seminars include presentations
by fire experts on new developments in fire detection and suppression
systems and managing disaster preparedness during building renovations.
Fire drills and Disaster Plan awareness training.
Fire drills and information sessions to raise staff awareness of
institutional disaster plans is a responsibility of each institution
but DISACT members have agreed to share information and experiences
in how best to manage this training. A training package has been
prepared by the author using the Microsoft Power Point computer
program that might be adapted to suit a wide range of cultural and
scientific collections. Disaster awareness training should be compulsory
for all staff at each institution, with the Director attending as
a good example.
There is no point in having a plan if no one knows about it. In
less than one hour basic information can be given on importance
of following the plan, the availability of emergency information
including who to contact, location and usage of emergency equipment,
and a other basic information about the recovery plan.
Fire drills are required by law for all public buildings and are
often conducted by contractors certified by the local Fire Brigade.
Training covers information about alarms, safety instructions and
the responsibilities of the emergency services personnel. Fire drills
are also the responsibility of each institution, but the DISACT
group share information about training requirements and identify
gaps so training can be continuously improved.
Sustaining the effort
It is too easy to have ambitious plans that cannot be sustained.
DISACT aims to keep arrangements as simple as possible and to minimise
the demands on members via some basic stipulations:
- Don't re-invent the wheel, use information that
is already available on the World Wide Web.
- Don't put all energies into writing a plan at the expense of
implementation actions such as purchases of materials and equipment.
- Share information of common benefit to cut time required to
prepare disaster plans.
- Share experiences with other institutions. A regular DISACT
agenda item is to discuss and learn from experiences of disasters
or serious near misses.
- Set realistic targets aiming for gradual improvement. For example,
aim for one training session per year, but feel pleased if two
- Gradual improvement is more realistic and is crucially dependent
on resources. It is not realistic to expect that everyone will
have a big plan ready and implemented right away, even the Australian
National Audit Office did not expect this.
- Accept that it is not possible for all disaster recovery teams
at an institution to take time off for training at one time. Training
a few high priority staff at a joint training session is more
achievable, especially when funds are limited. Most institutions
can afford to train two staff at A$250 each (approximately 1,000
FF each) rather than six people for A$1500 (~6,000FF). Small institutions
could never afford to organise their own training and would much
rather join forces with other institutions if costs can be shared.
- Accept that we cannot fund everything at once: prioritisation
Frequently the biggest difficulty in finalising a disaster plan
is identifying the items which require highest protection to prevent
damage or that require priority salvage in an emergency. This may
seem like asking curators which of their children should be
rescued first? However, this information greatly aids planning
Some internationally significant and nationally
significant category A and B objects, defined according to
the Hague Convention, may be obvious in some institutions. For example,
an extinct preserved Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
is a category A object at the National Museum of Australia.
It can be difficult to identify high significance and high value
items if no recent surveys or valuations are available. Registrars
are often able to use insurance data to help develop lists for priority
salvage based on value but curatorial information is essential for
significance data. Difficulties also arise where it is the completeness
of a scientific collection that gives the collection its greatest
value, rather than the value of individual items, for example systematic
taxonomy collections. Devolution of responsibility of collections
and changes to curatorial roles, which is common for natural history
collections, can sometimes cloud the division of responsibilities,
but it is obviously essential that someone is responsible for decisions
about salvage lists.
Plans for the future of DISACT
It is proposed to develop a basic website providing information
for local disaster management needs. There is an enormous amount
of information on the World Wide Web and there is no need to duplicate
it. The website will have two main parts: public information and
password-protected information. The public part of the DISACT website
will have some basic information on the DISACT group and a copy
of the MOU, with a few links to other good disaster management websites.
However, it is the password-protected part of the site that will
be of most value to DISACT members. This will contain vital documents
such as lists of materials and equipment available, staff contact
lists and contractor details. This can be updated regularly and
printed off when updating institutional disaster plans. DISACT is
fortunate in having a member who is familiar with setting up websites
and the site will be hosted through the National Herbarium. This
will take up to 12 months, being realistic.
The MOU is sufficiently flexible to allow additional members to
be incorporated provided they can meet the conditions of provision
of insurance cover and a basic disaster plan. It is desirable to
include local Australian Capital Territory government institutions
and they have indicated interest with proposals to be developed
over the next 12 months.
While disaster plans are most commonly managed by conservators,
registrars and facilities managers are vital in any plan. Registrars
manage storage areas and collection databases so they have vital
knowledge for planning evacuation of collections after floods and
labelling of high priority items (category A and B material). Facilities
managers typically organise building maintenance, fire protection
services and personnel evacuation. Many facilities managers also
have extensive contact with Emergency Services, which can be invaluable
While there is no formal written three-year plan, it is a basic
aim to ensure that each collecting institution in Canberra has a
basic disaster plan and that, over several years, training will
be provided to all staff on disaster recovery teams providing a
quorum of experience.
DISACT as a model for other places
Cooperation on disaster preparedness has several successful precedents
& indeed much had been done in Canberra to improve local collaboration
following the 1985 National Library fire. The cooperation in Sydney
has been sustained for over 10 years. Similar 'mutual assistance'
arrangements have also been developed in Canada between national
institutions in Ottawa, the M25 group of libraries in Britain (http://www.m25lib.ac.uk)
and the IELDRN library group in California (http://www.ieldrn.org).
The Ottawa Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed in a formal
ceremony with some fanfare and also had links to Y2K preparations
DISACT seems to have many elements of all these different models
that are known to the author (eg mutual assistance, training, seminars,
website) but the linking of cooperation at both Senior Executive
and operational levels through a formal agreement and training is
perhaps unusual. The DISACT group covers very diverse types of collections
including large technology collections (planes & tanks at the
Australian War Memorial), scientific collections (National Herbarium)
and security-sensitive Defence archives, whereas many groups elsewhere
concentrate on libraries or archives. The diversity of models found
in different locations suggest that good ideas can arise spontaneously
in different locations: there may be a model already out there that
suits your local needs or selected elements from different models
may be adaptable to specific situations.
Many DISACT institutions have participated in disaster recovery
and planning operations in remote regions of Australia (eg storm
damage at Aboriginal cultural centres) and in Asia-Pacific countries
including Fiji and Cambodia. From this experience we believe some
elements of our DISACT model could be adapted to remote areas and
less economically developed countries although there are significant
advantages in good infrastructure and modern telecommunications.
Three strong conclusions arise from the experience in Canberra:
- Training of senior executives encourages them to ensure adequate
resources for Disaster Preparedness and to agree to emergency
contracts for rapid engagement of commercial recovery services.
- Sharing information of practical benefit at the operational
level helps prevent 'reinventing the wheel' and speeds progress
in developing and implementing Disaster Plans.
- Joint training means smaller institutions can join with larger
organisations to organise realistic disaster recovery exercises
at a lower overall cost.
 The Auditor-General, 1998
Safeguarding Our National Collections
Audit Report Number 8 Performance Audit
Australian National Audit Office, Canberra
 Waller, R 1999
Internal pollutants, risk assessment and conservation priorities
ICOM Committee for Conservation 12th Triennial Meeting,
James and James Science Publishers, London
 Tremain, D 2000
Emergency Cooperation between Cultural Institutions in the National
Canadian Conservation Institute Newsletter No.25 May 2000.
Jeavons Baillie demonstrated the importance of gaining senior executive
support for the development based on his experience with academic
libraries in Victoria.
Dr Darryl McIntyre of the National Museum of Australia played an
important role in the development of the DISACT Memorandum of Understanding.
DISACT members contributed numerous ideas and professional support.