The other night my girlfriend and I watched a NOVA special on “Superstorm Sandy.” It was engaging and informative, with great visuals and some relatively interesting information. That said, I must add that it was a bit cheesy and I commented on that at the time, but was kindly reminded that they did -in point of fact- put the show together in a rather speedy timeframe. So, all that aside, the amount of damage inflicted by the sheer brute force of this “super-sized” storm and the side effects caused by an incredible deluge of salt water was astounding to see. The idea of picking up the pieces, clearing away the debris, and trying to move on with life is a sobering reality. Especially considering that winter is settling in.
Now, given that introduction, this commentary –should it go that way- might take any number of different approaches; debating the “reality” of climate change, discussing the adversity faced by the people affected as they try to put life back together, or even a comparison of the magnitude and ultimate resulting chaos of this and many other recent natural disasters around the globe of late. However, I will leave those more obvious approaches to the professionals…or at least to those more informed than I regarding such topics. No, I will instead approach this thing sideways. I will bring up a subject that is rarely considered in the modern media when reporting on such events. Now, as a disclaimer that last statement is meant to address only the plain facts of the situation, not as any sort of judgment.
This morning I got a phone call. There I was on the couch, in my jammies, barely through my first cup of coffee, sore and a bit strung out from a full and active day of curling yesterday. It was roughly 8am. In years past I was a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for the Talkeetna Volunteer Fire Department. I only bring that up because I know what it is like to be “on call”. I have worn the radio, slept with it next to my bed, and responded to it at all hours. My EMT license lapsed years ago, and while I have considered retaking the training, I have not found the time nor inspiration to do so. I am however currently certified in Wilderness First Aid, Light Search and Rescue, and Post Disaster Damage assessment. I am also an accomplished field archaeologist and more prominently of late, a museum curator.
So, you might be wondering where the hell I am going with all of this. It has to do with the phone call. You see I am still an emergency responder of sorts but these days I am a member of a different sort of team. I am still “on call” but it is on a completely different scale. Officially I am an active member of the National Park Service Alaska Region Cultural Resources Emergency Response team… (NPS AKR CRERT since the agency loves acronyms). We respond to situations where some form of cultural resource (think, archaeological site, historic building, museum or archive collection or facility, etc.) is in some way threatened. I responded to the BP oil spill to monitor clean-up efforts on East Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi where a sensitive prehistoric archaeological site was threatened.
Decorated ceramic fragment from East Ship Island.
I also responded to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau on the island of Hawaii to help mitigate effects of tsunami damage which affected the entire park following the 2010 Japan Earthquake/Tsunami event.
Historic wall displaced by Hawaiian tsunami.
The funny thing about disasters is that they are typically not preferential; all things are affected more or less equally. Now I realize that that is a blanket statement and maybe it would be better to say something like the forces of a disaster are not preferential and the effects are measured based on the ability of the objects thus affected to withstand those forces. Skyscrapers can more or less tolerate high winds and deep water…decades year old houses on the beach, well… not so much. But neither of those are my line these days. I specialize in museum collections. So consider what you might know (or not know… or never realized) about how museum collections are stored.
When you go to a museum, you typically pay some fee then wander about in the public spaces and admire the nicely displayed objects, hopefully learning something along the way. The reality however is that many, well nigh most, museums are comprised of FAR more than what meets the eye. Most –in point of fact- are actually repositories of some sort as well. This means that what the visitor sees is generally just a fraction of the whole collection that is cared for by the institution. So, where are the rest of the collections you might ask? Well, sometimes they are off site…take the Smithsonian for example. You can go to the National Mall in D.C. and wander the exhibits, which are impressive of course… and they certainly have some additional storage spaces in those buildings, but the bulk of the collections are stored in a special facility (facilities) in Suitland, Maryland. Most museums are not so fortunate or well funded and will often resort to storing everything the same way the rest of us do…wherever it will fit…say, in the basement.
Last summer my Father and step-Mother visited New York. They went to Ellis Island for the first time. I have never been. They were able to look up her family name and see the entries on the original registers and ship manifests from when her people first came to this country. It had a profound effect on them, especially my step-Mother. The entire experience did. They were very impressed with the whole presentation; the maintenance and care exhibited by the Park Service in preserving and presenting the details of a major element of history for an incredible cross section of the American population.
So, think for a moment about Ellis Island. Now think about Superstorm Sandy.
This morning I got a phone call. I more or less expected such a call at some point. I have been waiting for it since the storm first hit. That is what I meant earlier about scale. As an EMT you get the call when an incident has occurred. Then you respond…more or less immediately. You change out of your jammies and put the coffee in a to-go cup, grab your gear and roll. In this case it is weeks later before I got the official call; but the reaction is similar. I fly on Wednesday. The museum collections from Ellis Island need to be evacuated…transferred to a special -likely impromptu- facility for treatment. You see that is the thing about history, it has to be managed. It has to be cared for and responded to by specialists in order to preserve it for the future and these days that is what I do.
You might ask why some joe from Fairbanks Alaska is needed to fly nearly entirely across the continent to help out. Actually that is a really good question since we all know that there are many, many museum professionals between here and there. Well, there are two reasons. One; not all museum professionals are part of such a team and thus are not officially “assets” or “resources” that can be literally “ordered” when needed, within the national Incident Command System. Two; I will report for duty one month from the day Sandy made landfall. If they are calling me now that means that the system has exhausted the immediate supply of appropriate resources between here and there. Consider the scale… the implications of this. We have all heard about the effect the storm had on life, infrastructure, business, etc. We have not heard about the effect on cultural resources. The scale of this thing is so huge that a month later they are calling on specialists from THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CONTINENT to come help save our nation’s history!
So, with that in mind I will go to Ellis Island. I will pack and move boxes in the hopes that some part of that history can still be saved. I will think about my step-Mother and her people…and so should you. The first chance you get (and I suggest you actively make that chance for yourself very soon) go to a museum. Go to an archive, or some local historic site, at the very least read a book. Learn about the past of your area. Talk to your grandparents. Ask questions. Do your part to learn about, understand, and preserve our history. For it is truly OUR history regardless of our immediate connection to it. History makes no judgments and regardless of what you may think about it now, you would miss it if it were gone.