To Save or not to Save? Lessons of Practical Salvage

by Emma Davies, Head of Volunteering

Last week I
attended the English Heritage ‘Emergency Planning and Practical Salvage’
Course. This three day course, in conjunction with the West Midlands Fire
Service, was aimed at museum, gallery and historic property staff who hold responsibility
for both creating and implementing an Emergency Plan.

Every museum
team’s worst nightmare is the building in which you are housed being subject to
fire/flood damage and putting your collection at risk. I never
envisaged myself having to construct a pipe from a ladder and tarpaulin to
redirect gallons of gushing water but on the first afternoon we were put straight
to practical work!

Even for a
museum with predominantly encased items, it was important to get a sense of
when to remove items and when to treat them for any damage in situ. The course
not only gave practical advice to help prevent such disasters in the first
place, but ran drills related to how and when you can salvage items post

I’m sure
everyone has a favourite museum object that they would love to rescue, so
deciding on your priority items is the first step. Incidents such as the
Glasgow School of Arts and Cuming Museum fires really bring home how important
it is to prepare for all emergency scenarios and have a team ready to begin
salvage as soon as possible.

I even had the
chance to dress up in full fireman’s kit (see below) and use the breathing
apparatus to enter a smoke filled building. This gave me a tiny glimpse into
the amazing work undertaken by the Fire Service and how to work alongside them
in such a scenario.


The course gave
us a chance to run a full-scale mock salvage operation. Having never experienced
one first hand, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work to do.

Assigned the
role of ‘Quartermaster’ in the drill, I was responsible for allocating all
physical resources and personnel to complete the salvage exercise. The rest of
the course attendees were divided into ‘salvage’ and ‘recovery’ teams.

The salvage
team entered the property once deemed secure by the Fire Brigade and removed
the items in order of priority. The recovery team then triaged the items (the
equivalent of A&E for museum objects) and divided them into wet and dry.
Some ingenious methods for drying the wet items then ensued; maximising the
limited space available.

All objects
removed from the property had to be catalogued by the Documentation Officer as
they arrived so as to keep track of the collection. The objects ranged from
paper documents to large items of furniture, which were quite tricky to get out
of the building in the first place! The exercise ran for over two hours (a
short time by emergency standards) but I can tell you, we were all exhausted by
the end.

After saving
hundreds of objects from destruction, and getting a real insight into how a
good emergency plan and a dedicated team of individuals really can make the
difference, it was only right that we headed to one of Birmingham’s most famous
curry houses to congratulate ourselves!  

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