Extreme Weather Is Threatening Museums Around the Globe. What Are They Doing About It?

The Bass Museum in Miami Beach does not think about collecting the same way it did two years ago.

Situated in a region where sea level rise has tripled over the past decade and located a short walk from rapidly eroding beaches, the Bass has been forced to reckon with climate change more directly than most museums. “Do we feel comfortable purchasing a very humidity-sensitive watercolor for our collection? Or a light-sensitive black-and-white photograph?” George Lindemann, the president of the museum’s board, asked in a recent conversation with artnet News. “Probably not.”

The Bass isn’t alone. As scientists report increasingly troubling findings about the expected rise in extreme weather around the globe, from droughts in southern Europe to floods on the east coast of the US, a growing number of institutions are realizing that they need to start planning for an uncertain future today. As New York magazine reported recently in a terror-inducing article, most scientists concur that Miami will be underwater within the century, whether or not we stop burning fossil fuel.

“When I worked on Guggenheim Bilbao, we all mocked the requirement to accommodate the 100-year storm,” says Andy Klemmer, the founder of the Paratus Group, which manages the construction of cultural projects around the world. “Since then, 100-year storms seem to come along every five years…. Every project we work on now tries to predict the worst-case scenario and to accommodate it.”

Weathering the Storm

Some museums have already been hit hard by extreme weather. The Uffizi Galleries in Florence closed early on August 7 amid a massive heatwave sweeping Europe.

The Louvre in Paris has been repeatedly battered by violent storms, including a downpour last month that flooded parts of the museum and damaged two works by Nicolas Poussin. The museum stores a quarter of its collection underground near the Seine, according to a 2016 report in the Art Newspaper.

Klemmer notes that the Morgan Library and Museum’s gutters, designed to accommodate the maximum rainfall for the New York region, were “constantly being overrun” and “we had to make changes.” (According to the New York State Department of Conservation, heavy downpours increased more than 70% across the northeastern US between 1958 and 2010.)

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, meanwhile, had to alter plans for its $422 million Meatpacking District building when Hurricane Sandy hit during construction in 2012, flooding the basement with 30 feet of water. Although the original design had already strategically placed the main exhibition spaces and conservation lab on upper floors, Sandy “was worse than everybody was expecting,” says the project’s lead architect, Elisabetta Trezzani of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Whitney waterproofed walls, added watertight steel doors to the loading dock, and developed a custom temporary barrier system. The additional measures cost $12 million, according to a Whitney spokesman. The museum now conducts flood drills once a year.

Some institutions, however, have not bounced back so quickly. The University of Iowa Museum has been stuck in limbo since 2008 when a flood forced the museum to evacuate its collection, which includes Jackson Pollock’s famous Mural (1943). In the years that followed, insurance companies refused to cover any art stored there—but government agencies said the damage was not severe enough to justify federal funds for a new building.

After nine years, during which curators sent the museum’s treasures on tour and organized programs off-site, the university’s board of regents approved a plan on August 3 to build a new museum above the 500-year floodplain. The new building is expected to open in 2020.

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