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Protecting Treasures on a Shaky Planet

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Jerry Podany knows the kind of damage earthquakes can wreak. But he has concerns beyond collapsed buildings, cracked roads and fallen bridges.

As head of antiquities conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Mr. Podany worries about the effects of an earthquake on art. He has certainly seen the worst: marble busts sheared off their pedestals, a bronze snapped at its base, vases crushed by collapsing display cases.

He knows that artworks like these could have been spared with protective measures, the kind he would like to see in museums around the world.

"There are endless numbers of methods that are inexpensive and simple," he said. "And then you move on to more sophisticated things."

Since the early 1980s, Mr. Podany and his colleagues at the Getty have been at the forefront of a new and growing field, known as seismic mitigation for museum collections — an effort that focuses on protecting the objects inside a museum, instead of the building itself.

In 1985, working with a local engineering firm, the Getty developed the first base isolator for art objects, a specially designed mount that protects the pieces from the shaking of an earthquake. Since then, the museum's conservators have traveled around the world, giving lectures and workshops on emergency response plans and damage prevention.

"The Getty was thinking about this issue when many others weren't," said Charles A. Kircher, a seismic engineer in Palo Alto, Calif., who was a consultant on the design for the building isolation system beneath the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which reopened in a new building in 2005.

Paul Somerville, a seismologist who works for the URS Corporation in Pasadena, Calif., called the Getty a model for all museums. "They know they are in a seismically active area, and they have taken a very proactive approach to designing for those hazards," he said.

Most recently, Mr. Podany has been trying to figure out how to get more museums and more countries involved. In 2006, at his instigation, the Getty entered into a partnership with four earthquake-prone countries — Turkey, Greece, Japan and India — to set up international symposiums that bring seismologists and engineers together with curators and conservators to discuss how both sides are handling these issues and what might be done in the future.

"The spirit of it is really to bring multiple disciplines together," Mr. Podany said, "and to raise awareness."

The Getty's pursuit of earthquake remedy methods is a logical outcome of its location, Mr. Podany said. The museum lies near three major faults: the Santa Monica, the Malibu and the San Andreas. It is also blessed with an exceptionally generous endowment.

"At the time, there was this overwhelming attitude of, Earthquakes happen, and it's terrible, but what can you do?" he said. "But our attitude was, What can we do?"

After commissioning seismic studies on the Getty's buildings and grounds, Mr. Podany and Bruce Metro, the head of exhibition preparation, began to address the building contents, developing and installing the protective systems that the museum has in place today.

"Our two modes of protection are very straightforward," Mr. Podany said. "The first is, tie the thing down to the building, or to the case or pedestal that's tied to the building, and allow it to ride with the building."

To do this, the museum's conservators and mount makers use a variety of metal or acrylic fasteners and contour mounts as well as nylon filament to support and strengthen each object.

The other major protective device is the base isolator, the first of which was developed by Jack Yaghoubian, a local engineering consultant, in collaboration with Mr. Podany. It effectively disengages an object from the rocking, rolling and vibrating that can result from a quake.

These days, the Getty uses a new base isolator it designed itself. It consists of a three-layer mechanical apparatus hidden in the base of a pedestal or vitrine. The bottom layer is bolted to the floor, and the upper layers move horizontally on ball bearings in different directions — east-west and north-south — while springs keep them from sliding too far. The object is bolted to the top layer, and the whole thing is secured by an electric lock that releases when a sensor detects movement.

The Getty has nine base isolators — eight at the Getty Villa in Malibu and one at the museum in Los Angeles — that are used for pieces that are especially fragile, unstable or on loan.

While the simpler protective approaches like fasteners and nylon filament are widely used in museums up and down the West Coast, base isolators are used less often, mostly because of their expense. All these measures guard against accidental damage, too.

"Seismic hazards aren't the only reason to protect the work in this way," said Brian Considine, the Getty's head of decorative arts and sculpture conservation. "Terrible damage can occur from a visitor tripping, falling over or accidentally turning around and swiping something with an elbow. The same is true in storage."

From early on, Mr. Podany shared these concepts on the workshop circuit. But he eventually grew frustrated, because too many times he would return to a museum the next year and find that nothing had changed. "They get enthused for a short period of time and any little resistance will decouple it," he said. "The director isn't there and he says, 'Well, why should I pay for this?' And that's the end of it. Or they can't find the material you told them to use."

So when Mr. Podany was asked to give a workshop in Istanbul in 1999, he decided to take a different approach, structuring it in a way that invited more grass-roots involvement. He proposed going to a small museum, drawing up a list of priorities and working with the staff to address at least two items on the list. He would then check back every other month to see how things were progressing, with the idea that the newly secured museum could be used as a national case study. To his surprise, the workshop organizers asked him to address protection methods at the Topkapi Palace and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the city's two most important museums. Two years later, when he returned, the Topkapi Palace had put many of the recommended measures in place.

The success of this project inspired Mr. Podany to conceive of the symposiums, the first of which was held at the Getty Villa in May 2006 — a century after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. There, more than a dozen speakers presented a range of mitigation measures, from the supersophisticated mounts in use at the Getty to lower-tech methods, like dental wax holding objects in place.

"I didn't want the usual model of the expert parachuting in and telling people what they should do," Mr. Podany said. "What I wanted is interaction between the experts and the people who had immediate responsibility for the collection. I wanted to show them a range of possibilities."

When choosing participants, Mr. Podany selected countries that already had some damage mitigation efforts under way; each country must organize, host and secure financing for its own conference. Although the Getty Museum provides and finances a core group of speakers for these events, each symposium will have its own local spin.

Last year's conference, held in Istanbul, was organized by Mustafa Erdik, a professor of earthquake engineering at Bogazici University in Istanbul, who started the ball rolling in that city 10 years ago when he urged the director of the Topkapi Museum to think about securing its collections. Professor Erdik said in a telephone interview that earthquake mitigation in Turkey is not handled the same as it is in California: because strengthening the architecture is time-consuming and expensive, the objects are usually secured first. "We have so many museums and so many things on display," he said. "Not all the earthquakes are large ones. They may not break down the building, they just break down the displays."

Attendees at Professor Erdik's conference were taken to the Topkapi Palace and Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. Participants included an international group of conservators, engineers and academics as well as representatives from the International Council of Museums.

This May, the symposium in Athens will be organized by Vlasis Koumousis and Constantine Spyrakos, two civil engineering professors at the National Technical University of Athens. (Professor Koumousis is the designer of a base isolator system that is fitted into the floor beneath a statue of Hermes, the only surviving work of Praxiteles, at the newly renovated Olympia Archaeological Museum.) The 2009 meeting will be held in Tokyo and organized by Kimio Kawaguchi, the chief conservator at that city's National Museum of Western Art; it will likely include a visit to a test facility, so that participants can see various mitigation methods in action on a giant shake table, a device that simulates earthquakes.

In 2011, after a meeting in India, Mr. Podany hopes to hold another conference at the Getty, so the participants can sum up what they have learned and where they should go. His wish, he said, is for the core group to found its own independent association. "It's a personal issue," he said. "I don't see any other way that we can convince this global community of museums that they can do something."

By Carol Kino
For The New York Times

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