Disaster and Vandalism Response: Reviewing our Previous Emergency Grab Bag

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Previous measures at the National Gallery

In the 1990s, a kit was developed by the National Gallery’s scientific and conservation departments that could be used to deal with a corrosive substance attack on a gallery painting. The kit contained items for establishing the character of the corrosive substance used in the attack, including pipettes, beakers and pH strips, basic personal protective equipment (PPE), limited to gloves and safety glasses, and mop-up pads made of carbon cloth filled with silica gel granules.

On examination of the kit in 2011, the mop-up pads were found to have degraded; the charcoal membrane was damaged in most cases, allowing the silica granules to spill out. The PPE included was inadequate for current Health and Safety regulations, both to protect the operator and for dealing with the clean-up phase of a corrosive attack.

Three of these kits were originally placed around the gallery. Accompanying the kit boxes, but separate from them, were additional bags containing a battery-powered light, adhesive tape, scissors and a large roll of polyethylene. These additional bags, which were designed to be used in the case of floods when quick in-situ protection was required, did not include picture removal tools.

Redeveloping a disaster response grab bag: its function and content

In rethinking the National Gallery’s grab bag, it was determined that although some types of attack are more time sensitive than others, having a kit which contained materials and equipment to address all three types, as discussed above, would be advantageous. The earlier kit was not designed to address mechanical damage, or those featuring non-corrosive substances. The rationale behind this was based on the recognition that chemical attacks represent a grave and ongoing threat to the object, while other damage could be dealt with in the studio, or at a less urgent pace in situ. However, the experience of the most recent attack of 2011 highlighted the advantage of having a bag containing a range of solvents, swabs and absorbent cloths to speed up the removal of non-corrosive materials from the surface of a painting.

In the case of mechanical damage, it was decided that it would be good practice to stabilise and support any deformed canvas support prior to the paintings removal from the gallery wall, to prevent further folding, creasing, or loss. In view of such damage it may be necessary to rapidly lessen the effects of gravity on unwieldy, partially detached material and to arrest further stress and strain on an already compromised structure.

Determining the appropriate equipment and developing a protocol for dealing with corrosive damage was more complex. Earlier research conducted by L.Harrison to prepare a disaster kit for the galleries of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, provided some background. The research included extensive practical tests using a range of corrosive agents on various painting types, highlighting the risks of damage to both the painting and those involved in the recovery and the possible magnitude of damage. A specific response procedure for each scenario was developed as a result. Details of the research most pertinent to the National Gallery project is discussed in the Studies in Conservation article entitled 'Incident preparedness at the National Gallery: Developing a grab bag for rapid response to a corrosive attack' published in 2014.