Disaster Preparedness and Cultural Preservation


By Manda Kowalczyk, Preservation Specialist & Safety Coordinator

Sometimes a disaster catches us off guard, arriving in ground-shaking form like the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the east coast in 2011. Other times, it comes in the cloak of the night as a quietly leaking pipe in the basement. And every so often it seems to arrive all once like the flood waters of the 1966 Flood of the Arno River in Florence, Italy, which some say was the catalyst for the review and improvement of disaster preparedness as well as art conservation and historic preservation.

Flooded street scenes
Images from the 1966 Florence Flood: “Piazza San Firenze at 10:00 a.m., 12:00 m, 3:00 p.m.” Florin Website ©

The terms “Disaster Preparedness” and “Disaster Recovery” have become a part of this century’s lexicon due in large part to the events of September 11, 2011. In 2004, FEMA declared September Disaster Preparedness Month, providing tips and resources for families and businesses who want to gain insight or create a plan of preparedness of their own. While the ultimate goal of an emergency plan is to ensure personal safety, the consideration of artwork and architecture in the midst of a disaster, has now become a widely accepted addition to most museums' and cultural institutions' disaster plans.

Due to the popularity of the 2014 movie, “Monuments Men,” based on the non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, many more people are now familiar with the efforts undertaken to protect Europe’s artistic treasures against the destruction of war. The effort was a momentous advancement in the thinking that amidst a disaster, protection should also extend to art and architecture. This need to protect as a means to preserve a people’s culture and history arose again with the Florence Flood of 1966.

Between November 3rd and 4th, Florence had received over a 1/3 of its annual rainfall, raising the Arno River over 22 feet flooding the city’s streets, libraries and churches. Once the waters receded a day later, over 600,000 tons of mud remained. An estimated 14,000 works of art and over 3 million books and manuscripts were damaged and over 30 lives were lost.

A man and woman in a boat in a flooded street
Image from the 1966 Florence Flood.
A street covered in mud after a flood
Image from the 1966 Florence Flood.
Two imges of people removing mud from a damaged area
Image from the 1966 Florence Flood.
A statue of Saint Mary amid flood waters in a church
Image from the 1966 Florence Flood.

Although there no formal plan was in place for rescuing these artifacts, volunteers worldwide from the United States to Japan quickly swooped in and swept away the remaining tons of mud and debris swathing the city. Attempting to quickly salvage the Florentine heritage, the volunteers also moved, packed and performed ad hoc art conservation treatments on art and books however possible. Sometimes books were stacked up to the rafters as a triage effort to prevent further damage from the inches and feet of mud covering the floors. These volunteers were referred to as “Angeli del Fango” or "Mud Angels."

“What we were doing was dictated by the desire to give back the traces of the history of the past to future generations, so that it could be used for the spiritual growth of people who perhaps had yet to be born...it was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony which belonged to the whole world.”

- the Mayor of Florence, Mario Primicerio, From an interview conducted at the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.

A group of men carrying a large painting outside
Salvaging object from the 1966 Florence Flood.
Refer to caption
Salvaging object from the 1966 Florence Flood.

Through this ordeal, the field of conservation emerged with new techniques for treating and displaying artifacts.


Manda Kowalczyk

About the Author
Manda Kowalczyk: "After graduating with a BA in Arts and Culture, I began working in the Preservation Department in 2004 assisting with conservation treatments, rehousing, courier trips and exhibitions. I also serve as the museum’s Safety Coordinator by collaborating with staff to ensure exhibit and staff areas are safe for all!"