Photographer: Sand Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
As flames lit up the hills just across the freeway, torching mansions, the thousands of works of art in the Getty Center hung unperturbed. Nobody did anything to them. They didn’t have to.
The Getty’s bucolic setting on 750 acres of forested hills above Los Angeles would appear to expose it to the kinds of infernos still charring huge swaths of Southern California. But its setting is by design, part of an elaborate system of fireproofing to shield irreplaceable art as blazes bred by climate change pose a growing threat.
“The safest place for our collections, in the event of a fire, is right where it is,” museum spokesman Ron Hartwig said in a phone interview as he watched helicopters battle smoke and flames out his office window.
As climate change magnifies the threats from fires and floods, museums are taking increasingly sophisticated measures to protect their collections from extreme sunlight, humidity and temperature. “Climate change is the strongest thing that’s come up over the past 10 years, from an environmental perspective that people are looking at,” said Doug Hall, deputy director of the Office of Protection Services for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season set a record as the costliest in history, with more than $200 billion in damages from June through November. Cost estimates for this year's California wildfires also top $200 billion, and they're likely to keep increasing in the future as droughts and rising temperatures turn more land to tinder. “This is the new normal,” Governor Jerry Brown of California said during a Dec. 9 press conference.
At the Getty Center, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, fire protection begins with the landscaping. Its lush, irrigated lawns and gardens form a moat-like barrier against any advancing blaze. The fortress-like walls of the buildings, designed by Richard Meier, are clad in fire-proof travertine, their windows protected by outdoor sprinklers that wash and cool the glass. The structures also incorporate the lessons of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, such as how to weld steel beams so the joints don’t crack under stress.
Inside, air-filtration systems purify and pressurize the atmosphere around the clock, especially when smoke or smog cloud the skies. (Even before last week’s Skirball fire broke out nearby, sparked at an encampment for the city’s growing number of homeless, the museum had closed its doors to visitors so as not to let smoke and ash from the region’s other blazes enter its buildings.) As a last resort, “dry pipe” sprinkler systems can douse flames without damaging art.
While wildfires plague the West, museums in such cities as Miami, Houston and New York must prepare for flooding and rising seas.
In Washington, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, needed special pumping systems and barriers since two-thirds of it is underground, exposed to seepage in fair weather and flooding in foul.
After Hurricane Sandy breached Manhattan’s sea walls in 2012, construction was temporarily halted at the new riverfront Whitney Museum of American Art. It was redesigned to add protective barriers, including eight-inch-thick watertight floodgates modeled on doors for naval vessels, before it opened in 2015.
Houston’s Menil Collection is housed in buildings situated on high ground on a 30-acre campus, most of its 17,000 works of art stored in second-floor vaults to protect them from flooding. It opened a new energy center in February, equipped with generators to keep water pumps, air systems, and other security apparatus humming, even during and after a storm.
In August, Hurricane Harvey dumped as much as five feet of rain on Houston—an accumulation that climate change likely raised by at least 19 percent, according to a new study (PDF)—and left much of the metropolis underwater, blacked out or both. The Menil Collection’s art escaped unscathed. “All of our buildings stayed dry,” said spokesman Tommy Napier.