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Rescuing Water-Damaged Textiles During The Los Angeles Riots


ABSTRACT—During the April 1992 urban riots in Los Angeles, costumes and textiles from the study collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that had been stored in an off-site facility were damaged by exposure to water. After describing the circumstances under which the damage occurred as well as the conservation problems encountered, the author outlines treatments carried out on both costumes and tapestries. Finally, the author cites the various factors that made the museum's disaster response so effective.


During the period of urban unrest in Los Angeles from April 29 to May 2, 1992, a portion of the costume and textile study collection belonging to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was subjected to water damage. The damage occurred in an off-site storage area, access to which was not immediately available due to the concern for staff safety. This paper describes the course of action and the rescue effort.


Even with the best of planning, museums can outgrow their storage facilities. Planning for growth requires a museum staff to estimate how many artifacts will be acquired over a specified period. They must constantly anticipate the day when storage needs will exceed the space available. To accommodate these needs, museums have several choices: they can limit acquisitions, convert other areas into storage, expand by building on the present site, or acquire storage space off site.

Currently, a portion of LACMA's costume and textile study collection is housed off site in a building previously used for other purposes. The building was selected based on several criteria: location, security, environmental control, accessibility for loading, and cost. A number of museum departments working together, including conservation, developed guidelines for the safe storage of artifacts off site. They include the following:

  1. Both curators and conservators must approve in writing what can be moved to off-site storage. Conservators, art handlers, and registrars advise on the method of storage at the site.
  2. The storage team is responsible for moving objects and for keeping the record of artifacts' location changes current.
  3. All artworks going to off-site storage must be crated before delivery. In some instances it may be necessary to deliver the artworks to the storage area and construct the crates there. Crates should be waterproof.
  4. Crates should always be labeled with stickers, either “full” or “empty.” All full crates must be labeled on the outside with the artist's name, title of the work, and material, along with a photograph of the object. Crates must be at least 2 feet off the floor.
  5. Off site, the areas designated for art storage must be cleaned once a week and have good lighting. All aisles must remain clear. A ladder should be available along with other useful tools, such as tape measures and a flash-light.
  6. Temperature and humidity should be continuously monitored by a recording hygrothermograph, with new charts installed at appropriate intervals. Any unusual change in temperature or humidity must be addressed promptly.



The acuittal of several Los Angeles Police Department officers who were on trial for the beating of an African American prompted violent rioting in parts of Los Angeles from April 29 to May 2, 1992. The looting and arson of the evening of April 29 through April 30 was extensive in the neighborhood of the LACMA off-site storage facility. The museum, several miles away, was closed to the public, and all but essential staff left the building by midday on April 30. A citywide curfew went into effect at sundown. The museum remained closed to the public for the next four days.


The museum's off-site storage is located in an old-style shopping center with rows of one-story shops. The museum rented the entire basement of a former department store in the shopping center for storage. The basement does not have overhead water sprinklers for fire suppression, but the floor above it does. On the evening of April 30, the buildings adjacent to the off-site storage were set on fire. Film footage of the fire could be seen on television at around 9:30 p.m. About that time, the blaze triggered sprinklers on the floor above the basement storage. The sprinklers could not be turned off immediately because the fire had melted all the keys to the shut-off valve room. The next day, fire personnel had to be diverted from other duties to break down the door to this room and shut off the sprinklers, which were on for approximately 12 hours. The delay was unavoidable because of the concerns for staff safety. No one was permitted to enter the storage facility until the National Guard had secured the area.

On the morning of May 1, the sprinklers were turned off on the floor above the off-site storage area. When the National Guard had determined the area to be safe, a few staff members, including one person each from the conservation, costumes and textiles, and art preparations departments, went to the off-site storage area to photograph and assess damage. They were permitted to spend only a limited time there. Due to the instability of the area, they were not permitted to remove any objects from the storage area on this first trip.

On May 2, a few staff members went to the storage site to bring out the most seriously damaged artifacts in the Costume and Textile Study Collection. The visit was kept to two hours because the museum's security staff did not want to draw attention to the storage site. Inside, it was found that the floors were covered with 2 to 6 in. of water, which contained dirt, broken glass, ceiling tiles, and pieces of cardboard (fig. 1). Though the crates had been stored 2 to 4 ft. off of the floor, in some places the water level had risen higher. Some crates had water collecting on the top. As many crates as possible were quickly raised further to begin the drying process. Two small truckloads returned to the museum carrying tapestries and some costumes that were clearly wet.

Fig. 1. A conservator examining the damage to the storage area after the water sprinklers on the floor above had been shut off. The debris on the floor consists of acoustic ceiling tiles.


No two emergencies are alike, but all require clear thinking, a calm approach, and common sense. The procedures developed to handle this emergency can be divided into two steps: (1) examination and (2) treatment. During the examination phase, three aspects of each textile were quickly assessed: (1) degree of water damage; (2) sensitivity of textile, such as material weakness; and (3) previous treatments, such as conservation, restoration, and other procedures.

After examination, all of the textiles were divided into three categories: wet, damp, and dry. Wet textiles were treated right away. Several costumes were washed using Orvus detergent and water when appropriate. The damp textiles were then divided into three categories: (1) tapestries, which were unrolled onto a large atrium floor to dry; (2) costumes that had to be padded with nylon tulle to dry flat; and (3) costumes that had to be hung on hangers to dry. Some damp costumes and textiles received immediate attention, but others had to wait until personnel were available.



Before the riots, many of the costumes in the study collection were stored off site in closed, waterproof wooden crates. In preparation for storage, each costume had been padded with acid-free tissue and then placed in a muslin garment bag, suspended horizontally in a Fome-cor box. Each box was custom made in the museum to fit snugly in the crate. Unfortunately, at the time of the riots, some costumes were in cardboard boxes awaiting placement in wooden crates. These textiles suffered the most damage. Costumes that were stored in tightly sealed wooden crates sustained no damage.

The costumes in need of urgent attention arrived first. Eight costumes were found in a collapsed cardboard storage box on the wet floor. Water had leaked from the ceiling onto the box. The box had split wide open, creating an urgent situation. The wet costumes were brought to the museum, and the goal was to avoid permanent staining and tide lines. The costumes were spread out in the textile conservation laboratory, quickly examined with brief written reports, and photographed. The wet costumes that showed no evidence of dye bleeding and appeared to have stable fibers and trims were washed in Orvus detergent and water. All of the costumes were padded out with nylon tulle to facilitate air-drying, and fans were used to speed the process.

Overall, the costumes dried successfully, except for two: one with gelatin sequins that were softened or dissolved by the water and another that had a fugitive blue dye bleed into the pink silk of the dress and onto the neighboring costume. Neither costume was washed. This work, along with work on the tapestries, was completed in one day. To say the least, it was a stressful and exhausting experience.

The next day, 25 American designer suits from the 1930s and 1940s and 4 early Californian (19th-century) dresses were brought to the museum. After examination, all were found to be slightly damp, and they were hung on hangers on portable racks in the atrium to dry. The four 19th-century costumes were suitable for wet cleaning, which was done over a period of two hours using Orvus detergent and water. Photographic documentation and conservation treatment files were completed.

Finally, after the crated costumes and textiles were examined, three wooden crates of costumes were brought to the museum for examination. Apparently, one of the crates had not been closed tightly, and water had seeped in. The Fome-cor boxes were very wet, but the objects, stored in muslin bags, were only damp. All of the costumes were laid out in the costume and textile exhibition galleries and the textile and paper conservation laboratories to air-dry (fig. 2). As one side dried, the costumes were then turned over to dry on the other side. Similar to the very wet costumes, the damp ones were stuffed with nylon tulle and air-dried overnight. Since the damp costumes were in the crate for only a few days before it was opened, they had not become moldy and did not suffer any permanent damage.

Fig. 2. Damp costumes spread out to dry on tables in the textile conservation laboratory at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Before the riots, tapestries in the off-site storage had been rolled on a protected cardboard tube, covered with muslin, and wrapped in a layer of polyethylene. They were placed on custom-built storage racks that included a horizontally suspended steel pole placed through the cardboard tube. The polyethylene sheet was taped tightly around the ends where it met the steel pole.

To facilitate thorough examination of the tapestries after the sprinklers were shut off and to remove them from the humid environment of the off-site storage area, all of the tapestries were brought to the museum, where a work area was established in a large open atrium. In an everyday situation, if one plans to work with tapestries on the floor, one would first cover the floor with sheets or barrier paper. It was anticipated that there would be little time to cover such a very large area of the floor in this way. However, because this was an emergency, cleaning personnel had been alerted to wash the floor thoroughly.

After the tapestries arrived, their outer polyethylene covers were removed, and they were divided into two categories: damp and dry. Fortunately, most fell into the dry category. The damp tapestries were unrolled face-up onto the floor in a large open space in the museum's atrium (fig. 3), and selective photography of damp areas was completed. The tapestries were allowed to air-dry. After examination confirmed that drying was complete, the tapestries were rerolled so that they could be moved to another gallery. Those tapestries that felt dry to the touch seemed to be in no direct danger. There was some uncertainty about how much dampness or high humidity might have affected these seemingly dry textiles. For the moment, though, since there was so much to do, these tapestries were assigned a lower priority. The outer coverings of muslin were opened, and the ends of the rolling tubes were propped up on blocks. Two weeks later, all of the tapestries were dry and showed no evidence of damage. They were covered with new polyethylene covers and returned to the off-site storage.

Fig. 3. Damp tapestries laid out on the floor to dry in the museum's atrium


The rescue and cleanup effort for the costumes and textiles required 454 staff and volunteer hours, both at the off-site storage and at the museum. During the first days of the rescue effort, the team consisted of the collections manager and her assistant, two textile conservators, two objects conservators, three curators, three curatorial assistants, one student volunteer intern, and four guest volunteers. The later cleanup was done over two months by two textile conservators, a student volunteer intern, and two collection managers.


In disasters such as earthquake, flood, hurricane, and fire, conservators recognize the need for a disaster plan as a crucial step in the prevention of major damage. But when they have to face human-induced disasters like riots, war, or terrorist action, there is no ideal disaster plan. Such disasters are unpredictable and involve the deliberate destruction of culture and people.

During the tumultuous events of the Los Angeles riots, the LACMA conservation department staff watched the television reports with anxiety and disbelief. We worked hard to stay calm, communicate effectively, and make wise decisions. The combined effort of conservators, collections manager, curators, curatorial assistants, and volunteers was fundamental to the successful completion of this rescue operation. Teamwork was critical, and teamwork made it possible to save the artifacts. Each person who was part of the team was clear about his or her responsibilities in a chain of command that had been clearly defined before the emergency.

The following are some of the successful aspects of our disaster response:

  1. Because LACMA's standard guidelines for off-site storage required that all artwork be crated, water damage to the textiles was minimized.
  2. Several factors aided the efficient evacuation of objects. These were:An emergency coordinator was designated, and the chain of command, critical personnel, and other duties were defined.A “phone tree” was used to contact personnel because any other way of communication was not fully reliable.Rescue activities were coordinated among the affected departments.The National Guard was contacted before acting.Each object could be found quickly because registrarial records included the location of every object.The damaged objects were treated efficiently because a recovery team was formed and a recovery work area prepared. Emergency staging areas were established.During initial examination, the textiles were categorized, and treatment priorities were determined.


This article represents the efforts of all the staff and volunteers who worked hard to rescue these artifacts. The team included textile conservators Cara Varnell, Catherine McLean, Nina Cole, and Emilia Cortes and collection manager Kaye Spilker and her assistant, Alice Wolf. The author would like to thank Pieter Meyers, head of the Conservation Center at LACMA, for his interest and support. She would like to thank her teacher, Catherine McLean, for helping to edit this paper and for all of the knowledge that she shared generously during the author's preprogram internship in the LACMA textile conservation laboratory.


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DUBRAVKA TURKOVIC-KISELJEV comes from Zagreb, Croatia, with undergraduate degrees in nursing and graduate degrees in art history and comparative literature from the University of Zagreb. She was trained through apprenticeship in objects conservation and worked as an objects conservator in Croatia. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she was a preprogram intern in textile conservation from December 1991 until August 1993. In August 1993 she entered the graduate conservation training program of the State University College at Buffalo, pursuing a double major in objects and paper conservation. Address: State University College at Buffalo, Art Conservation Dept., 230 Rockwell Hall, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, N.Y. 14222.

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