Natural Disasters

With the wildfires in the West, the hurricanes in the East, and the growing threat of natural disasters due to climate change, it’s critical that your museum take steps to prepare and have a plan in case of emergency.

This page divides strategies for disaster preparedness into three categories: before, during, and after a natural disaster. The question is not if, but when you will face a disaster. Being prepared is crucial. It is best practice to create a plan (and keep it updated) long before a possible disaster occurs. That way when disaster strikes, your museum is prepared.

Unsure What Disasters Affect Your Museum?

Check out FEMA’s list of declared disasters by location, date, incident, or level of declaration, to see the most common disasters in your area.

Before a Disaster

Assess your Museum and Staff Information

This simple Disaster Prevention and Safety Checklist from the Georgia Archives can be a helpful document to start out with when assessing risks in a museum.

The Pocket Response Plan (PReP)™ is a concise document for recording essential information needed by staff in case of a disaster. Once the information is complete, every person with a response-related assignment should have access to the up-to-date plan.

Make a Disaster Preparedness Plan

A disaster preparedness plan is a written policy (and a set of procedures) that, when followed, prevents or mitigates damage and harm caused by potential natural or human-made disasters. Here are some resources to help you begin to write one.

A good place to start is to view the National Park Service Museum Handbook chapter on emergency planning. Check it out here to read about the process of understanding your risks, preparing, and training for emergencies.

The American Alliance of Museums offers “Developing a Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan Reference Guide,” an introductory primer for museums as they start working on making a plan.

Also read through the Getty Conservation Institute “Building an Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and other Cultural Institutions,” which lays out the planning process, presents case studies, and details the parts played by people in various positions and areas of the museum in preparing for disasters.

The Texas Association of Museums PREP: Planning For Response & Emergency Preparedness manual covers preparation and risk management, assessment, and recovery.

To create a disaster preparedness plan for your museum, check out the “Be Prepared: Guidelines for Small Museums for Writing a Disaster Preparedness Plan.” This guide goes into detail about the following steps towards making a disaster preparedness plan for your museum:

  1. Assess Risks: Become aware of internal and external threats.
  2. Reduce Risks: Make plans and set them into action to combat identified risks.
  3. Prioritize Collections: Become aware of the objects in your collections that you deem most important to your museum.
  4. Disaster Response Team: Who will be a part of your disaster prep team and what jobs will they have?
  5. Support Networks: Make sure your museum has outside support and contacts that will be necessary in a disaster.
  6. Disaster Response Plan: Create the plan that will be used during a disaster.
  7. Disaster Recovery Plan: Have information prepared so that following a disaster your museum can make a plan to get back on your feet.
  8. Training: Training is critical to your museum’s preparedness for a disaster.
  9. Plan Review: Your Disaster Preparedness Plan should be reviewed regularly.

Feel like you could use more structure or a different guide? Check out DPlan. DPlan is a free online tool prepared by the Northeast Document Conservation Center and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners intended to help create a disaster plan. It will even remind you to check and update your plan every 6 months!

This Library Disaster Plan Template, created by the California Preservation Program and supported by the IMLS Library Services & Technology Act, includes both disaster preparedness and recovery information tailored to libraries.

Another resource, these videos from the National Park Service (from 2007), while slightly dated, can provide some tips to help you start thinking about disaster preparations.

Keeping your plan up to date and training staff and volunteers on how to utilize the plan are essential steps towards ensuring your museum is ready for a disaster. The Connecting to Collections Care online community has a webinar discussing techniques for testing your museum’s disaster plan and how well your people are trained to follow it,

During a Disaster

Need help now? Call the National Heritage Responders (NHR): 202.661.8068, available 24/7. The NHR responds to the needs of museums and cultural institutions during museums and disasters. Check out their blog to see what they’ve been working on.

Remember, regardless of how old or unique your museum’s collections are, human lives are more important than collections. Don’t unnecessarily place yourself or your employees in harm’s way. Execute your plan and monitor emergency messages.

If you decide to evacuate, remember to photograph and label what you are boxing up. See this 2016 publication from the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

After a Disaster

Survey the damage. Follow the steps in your disaster plan for recovery.

Check out the Emergency Response and Salvage Mobile App. This free app makes the Emergency Response and Salvage wheel available for anyone who needs practical advice for saving collections in the first 48 hours after a disaster.

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative “Response and Recovery Resources” page has links to various sites with more information about recovering from disasters. The U.S. Department of the Interior has a similar webpage with links to “Self Help and Technical Assistance” for responding to and recovering from disasters.

FEMA Fact Sheets provide links to PDFs containing information about how to recover damaged items following disasters such as fires or floods.

Don’t forget about your staff! Your museum went through a disaster, but so did your employees (and volunteers). Remember that outside of work your employees may have personal difficulties to deal with. They may be struggling to find childcare for kids out of school after a disaster or their house might have been destroyed. There are many personal stressors that can arise post natural disaster—try not to add to the stress. Check out this guide for more Tips for Retaining and Caring for Staff after a Disaster (put together by Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Information Gateway). While it is focused on healthcare workers, the tips are relevant for anyone running an organization after a disaster.

Handling Specific Natural Disasters, a website put together by the Department of Homeland Security, is a good resource for preparing for disasters. It has information about hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, and more.


Here is an article with tips for hurricane preparedness, which was put out by the Institute of Museum and Library Services before Hurricane Florence. While Florence-specific, it provides some quick actions to take prior to a hurricane and gives links to other useful sources.


This guide to earthquake drills will help you plan, execute, and evaluate the efficacy of your earthquake drills.


Check out this guide to drying different materials, “Salvage at a Glance,” which was put out by the Western Association for Art Conservation.

For more information on drying waterlogged materials, check out this powerpoint about “Emergency Drying Procedures for Water Damaged Collections.”


Check out this Conservation Online (CoOL) guide created by Michael Trinkley in 2008. It provides valuable information about a range of topics, from fireproofing your institution and preparing for a wildfire, to tips on removing the smoke smell following a fire.