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Museums are racing to save America’s treasures from climate change

National museums are facing increased flooding and more frequent wildfires, and all that history inside is at risk. The value at stake is incalculable. There is a rush now to make structures more sustainable, but funding this will be a feat.

The problem is particularly acute in the national museums of the Smithsonian Institution. At the Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington, the water is already rising. On a dry day, in the middle of two dry weeks, water leaked into the bowels of the building.

As Nancy Bechtol, director of all facilities at the Smithsonian, explained, “It’s just groundwater.”

Bechtol is responsible for 13 million square feet of museum space, most of which is located in a sub-sea mall, as well as two museums in New York and one in Virginia.

“We’re always kind of planning ahead and arranging various emergency response activities, just to be prepared, to have our staff ready and to have planning,” she said.

Heavy rainfall is another major problem. Rain water seeped into the Smithsonian premises after a major storm in 2006 and again last spring, when the American Historical Museum’s cafeteria was flooded with more than a foot of water. None of the collections were damaged, but museum director Anthea Hartig saw the inscriptions on the sacred walls.

The rising water is already seeping into the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.

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“We have collected almost 2 million items. We have three linear miles of archival material that tells an unparalleled material story of our country’s remarkable past, so we are deeply committed to understanding how to modernize the building, care for the collections,” said Hartig.

In fiscal year 2021, the Smithsonian had a budget of $214 million, and Bechtol said she is using everything she can for defense, such as building flood walls around buildings, building rain gardens, buying sandbags, raising reserve generators and the construction of a brand new high ground storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, expected to be completed this year. Artifacts located in the basements of museums at the malls, which are at the greatest risk, will be transferred there.

“Even if I have to protect with plastic, I will protect with plastic,” Behtol said.

She is not alone in the struggle. New waterfront museums in Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida have been built with special flood protection, and private funding is gradually starting to increase to protect older structures.

The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, dedicated to supporting the legacy of the famed abstract artist, has allocated $5 million over the next two to three years to invest in clean energy, energy efficiency and climate resilience.

“We received 110 applications. It was just six weeks notice. These 110 applications came from people who knew exactly what to do and how they wanted to approach it,” said Sarah Sutton, grant manager for the foundation’s climate initiative.

As such, the fund recently doubled its commitment to $10 million, making it the largest privately held climate resilience fund.

“No, that’s not enough,” Sutton said. “This incredible commitment is just a drop in the ocean, but it is a demonstration that the museum sector is ready to take on this challenge.”

The money helped the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center implement wildfire protection for its structure, power systems and air filtration after the J. Paul Getty Museum was dangerously close to destruction in the 2019 fires in Los Angeles and Malibu.

“These collections do not depreciate over time. They rise in value, whether it be intellectual or financial value. Protecting and protecting them for the long term in the future increases their value to us, the museum and investors.” Sutton said.


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