ERC 2018 – We’re in This Together: Registration in Post-Quake Christchurch

Discussing emergency planning with colleagues is a difficult, fascinating and an almost impossibly challenging task. Just how do you plan for the scenarios you can’t really visualise and never ever want to take place? Hearing what Gina Irish from Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand had to say from the perspective of someone who had actually been through it was one of the easiest choices I made at ERC. However for me it wasn’t just professional interest. I grew up down the coast from Christchurch and I have family and friends who live there and experienced the quake and lived through its aftermath of liquefaction, no power, sewage or water systems, aftershocks and finally the ongoing battles to get insurance payments on damaged homes years after the quake. This one was always going to be personal.
It was therefore reassuring to hear Gina speak about the quake not just as a practical challenge, or series of challenges, but also of the personal impact for her, her colleagues and the wider community. While most of us will not face a disaster at work which means we are also worrying about family, friends and our homes, all of us care about the places where we work and the collections we look after. The personal impact of loss of these, or threat of loss, should not be ignored. It can have a real impact on how an institution and the people who work for it deal with a disaster.
So what were my takeaways from Gina’s talk?
  • Disaster plans need broad input and the involvement of more staff. The Christchurch Gallery’s plan failed because it had been written in isolation by one person. They rewrote it together, which Gina noted was cathartic and collaborative, bringing in valuable skills. They looked beyond their own organisation to the emergency services who were willing collaborators.
  • The importance of collaboration. Gina spoke about how prior to the quake the people within the organisation were not effective collaborators. The disaster forced this change. There was better communication and more skill sharing.
  • You might not have access to your premises and services may not work. Gina talked about how the Gallery was taken over as the Emergency Headquarters and how this actually gave collection staff access and ensured working WiFi. It did come with challenges as they had to move the entire collection in a matter of weeks and then had the task of getting the emergency response staff out of the building at a later date. 
  • Stages of response to a disaster. Gina spoke of four stages: Fight or flight response, a honeymoon period where people came together to solve problems, disillusionment when staff are tired and just want things to get back to normal, and finally reconstruction. She credited their director in holding the team together throughout and the importance of leadership It seems worth thinking about and building these stages into emergency planning.
  • The importance of the skills and experience that registrars and collection staff hold. Gina spoke about how the registrars led the move of the collection, the need for a clear chain of command and the active participation of all staff working alongside management. The registrars developed professional skills through supervision and mentoring of other staff.
  • There can be unexpected benefits to a disaster. It was publicly recognised that the Gallery could not resume business as usual which enabled back of house projects to be completed such as research into old loans and copyright, projects which would not have been possible with normal workloads.
  • The importance of the wider community and being visible. The Gallery organised pop-up exhibitions and moved to install artwork across the city. This increased collaborations with library colleagues, artists and new partners and sponsors. Gina spoke about there being no industry framework for a gallery without walls and the need to work in new ways with artists and others. She talked about the wish to offer meaning to the community, to what she described as ‘a broken city’. The Gallery continued to acquire new works despite having no acquisitions budget by crowdfunding. Check out their campaign for Michael Parekowhai’s Chapman’s Homer. Gina spoke about how this has made the public view both the objects and the Gallery differently as they are invested in and feel ownership of them. 
  • Gina’s final comments were on the impact on the registrar and collection team with them having a raised profile, feeling valued and engaged and focused on moving forward.
Written by Alison Duke, Collections Manager, The Foundling Museum