After Fire, a Rush to Preserve History Meticulous Cleanup Under Way at American Museum of Natural History

Jennifer Smith and Colleen Wilson, Wall Street Journal 
December 26, 2014

The first floor of the American Museum of Natural History still reeked of smoke when the museum’s emergency team swept in to assess the damage from a fire that forced the evacuation of some 4,000 people.

The Dec. 12 fire, sparked when heat from a worker’s torch ignited a filter in an exterior ventilation unit, pumped soot and smoke into the museum’s oldest exhibition hall, the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Then two sprinklers came on, splashing some totem poles and display cases filled with ceremonial masks, tools and other irreplaceable artifacts.

Such accidents, while rare, are a museum administrator’s nightmare. “We’re here to preserve these objects for the historical record, for the people,” said Judith Levinson, director of conservation for the museum’s anthropology division.

Her team rushed in as soon as firefighters gave the all-clear, about 2½ hours after the fire broke out. Custodians wiped down areas flooded when the sprinklers went off, while conservators in surgical gloves began documenting the condition of the objects on display.

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