A Registrar’s Trilemma – The Outcome

I hope you all enjoyed thinking about the situation I presented in the first part and have now decided what you would do.

What was the real outcome?

First of all, you will remember that I said in the first part that real life doesn’t work like an exercise. So, I didn’t have all the pieces of information as well-organized as they were when I presented them to you. I had to draw them together in the continuing process of trouble-shooting – with limited time and with a snowstorm approaching.

As you may have guessed, although option a) (pull out the trucks) was possible in theory, I dumped it pretty soon. It was the most likely to damage the trucks, either in the process of moving or because of weather/climate issues. Imagine moving historical trucks in great haste at the beginning of a snow storm! What are the odds that everybody stays calm and does the right thing? How likely is it that someone loses his head, letting go where he shouldn’t or not watching his step? Preventing artifacts from danger is only one aspect. Avoiding accidents, especially the ones that could lead to injuries, is another and more important to me.

I leaned toward option c) (wait until Monday) at first. Then I checked the webpage of the Deutsche Wetterdienst (DWD, German meteorological service), the precipitation radar and the weather dates of the nearby airport (which is our reference for local weather because it’s only 4 kilometers away).

At the moment we had about 55% relative humidity outside at about -3C. The weather forecast for Monday predicted the temperature would rise to 2-5C with a rain probability of 85%. The precipitation radar told me that the snow front was coming, but was likely to arrive some hours later than the warning time of 10 a.m.

So, I figured out I would have a small time slot for option b) (open gate, place cherry-picker on the outside, work on the inside), because Monday there would be exactly the same problem but with weather conditions worse than today’s. The longer-term weather forecast didn’t give me much hope that conditions would improve within the next week. In fact the -3 °C/55% RH setting seemed to be the best in the foreseeable future.

hxdiagrammTo double-check my intuition, I took out my faithful Molier hx-diagram. It told me that with this setting I would not reach the dew point in the hall (remember: 11°C/42% RH). The air would first mix, resulting in an increase of temperature and a decrease of relative humidity before the temperature would start descending. And with all artifacts being well heated at 11C, the risk of condensation seemed low (as opposed to what happened some years ago when some smart guy decided to open the gates to let the “beautiful, warm spring air” (18 °C/80%) into the hall (11°C/50%)).

If the snow front arrived early, we would still be able to interrupt the work and have the gate closed in about 10 minutes. So, I decided to take option b), but, honestly, I didn’t feel comfortable with this solution and would have been thankful for anyone providing an option d).

We were lucky. The detector was changed within one hour and the snow front reached us as late as 2 p.m. We re-heated the hall very carefully (which wasn’t problematic because the heating system is very weak) and all went well.

Why do I have all the data? Did this happen recently?

Some of you may have wondered why I have all the exact data present although I ran into this situation a long time ago. Cross my heart, I didn’t have to make it up! I just had to look it up.

In general, if there are problematic situations you can talk with experts in your museum or in the field to find the best possible solutions. You can make the decision yourself after you have double-checked with colleagues to see if you haven’t missed something important. Or you can present it to upper management and let them make the decisions. Whatever approach you take, you can say you did what you did to the best of your knowledge. Then, there are situations like this one where you are left to your own devices. You have to decide on the basis of the limited data you have, your experience and your gut feeling.

In these cases it’s important to do a double-check afterwards. Sure, if something goes wrong you know that your decision was wrong and you will do it better the next time. But if all goes well you will never be completely sure if it went well because your decision was right or just because you had an enormous amount of luck. This leads, in the worst case, to do the same thing again next time but with far less luck.

So after the incident, I wrote to many colleagues asking them the question I asked you: “What would you have decided?” It was very interesting to read their responses. In general, they approved of how I acted. Some asked if it hadn’t been possible to take the risk of having only one fire detector active, because since it is infrared it would surely react if there were a fire, even if it was in the other part of the hall. There were a few reasons I didn’t take that risk:

  1. The two infrared detectors were installed at exactly the same time. If the malfunction had been a production issue, perhaps the second detector wasn’t fully reliable either.
  2. In case of a fire I was not sure how the insurance would have taken the fact that one of the fire detectors wasn’t activated.
  3. My main concern was this: What if a small fire were burning for some time in the area of the broken fire detector without the other detector taking notice? The fire could gain strength and when the other one finally did take action, we would have lost precious time for the firefighters to react. The hall was made of stone, so statics were not the main concern. But imagine the amount of oily, probably toxic smoke that would be produced by burning oily wood, trucks and trains, the contaminated air and how it would affect every artifact in the hall. And, at least among colleagues of technology museums, the pictures of what remained of the Nürnberg Transport Museum roundhouse are still present: http://en.wikipedia.org//wiki/Nuremberg_Transport_Museum#Damage_following_the_fire_of_17_October_2005

Some colleagues had additional ideas, such as forming a voluntary fire watch among the staff for the weekend, to see if the weather really would be that bad on Monday, an idea I will definitely keep in mind for other cases to come.

When I was about to write this story down, all I had to do was to dig into my email archive of the year the incident took place under the keyword “trilemma” and there I could re-read all the data and some additional facts I have since forgotten, along with all the suggestions I’d received from fellow registrars and collection managers.


Looking back, there was much to learn from this incident:

  • When planning storage, consider how safety appliances can be maintained without putting artifacts at risk.
  • Keep all records of past incidents; you never know when you’ll need them.
  • Murphy’s Law is still in force.

I hope you enjoyed this little real-life collections manager crime scene, and if you ever feel like sharing one of your stories, we would be glad to publish it on Registrar Trek.

Best wishes


Brought from rough into correct English by Molly S. Hope. Thanks Molly, I would be lost without you!


2 thoughts on “A Registrar’s Trilemma – The Outcome”

  1. Angela, we are getting close to finishing the first draft of an emergency response plan for our museum, and just having gone through the process of imagining a disaster and our response, as well as going through your scenario and imagining pur (or my) response, is hugely helpful. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Glad to hear you could use my story. Good luck with your emergency response plan and may you never have to use it!
      Best wishes

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