Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed took their toll on the cultural riches of New Orleans and the cities in its orbit. However, the major art museum of the city, the New Orleans Museum of Art, seems largely to have been spared so far. Staff members defied the evacuation order to protect the museum holdings. The danger is not abated: the prints and photographs are still vulnerable. From the International Herald Tribune.
Museum directors were still struggling to gain a clear picture of the extent of losses, but some collections seem to have been spared, including the core holdings of the New Orleans Museum of Art, one of the region’s most important.
Seven staff members of the New Orleans Museum of Art, including security guards and engineers, stayed behind Tuesday to protect the collection and were presumably there through the week, said E. John Bullard, the museum’s director.
The Times-Picayune newspaper reported that about 30 members of families of museum staff members had sought refuge in the building, which is on high ground at the edge of City Park. It said the staff members had refused to leave the building untended when urged to leave by officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who arrived Wednesday.
Bullard, who was vacationing in Maine, said Friday that he had heard nothing more. "The ones who stayed are really the heroes for the museum," he said.
The museum, which has about 40,000 objects in its collection, has a prominent group of Miro works and other paintings, 16,000 pieces of glass, and major photography holdings. It has an important African collection, and about 100 of the best pieces from it are on tour right now.
Bullard, who has been director of the museum since 1973, feared for an outdoor sculpture garden established two years ago containing 55 works, including pieces by Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois and Claes Oldenburg.
A 45-foot-tall steel tube and cable sculpture by Kenneth Snelson, "Virlane Tower," which was valued at more than $500,000, was smashed, The Times-Picayune said. The other major concern was basement storage spaces. There was only enough fuel for the emergency generators, which operate sump pumps and climate control systems, to last until the middle of last week.
If water invades and the pumps fail, thousands of photographs and prints could be threatened. "Hopefully the items in the cabinets would gently rise up or maybe just stay on the shelves," he said.
Bullard said the museum’s insurers had dispatched private security guards from Florida in two campers to protect the artwork and seek out fuel to keep the generators going. The next task would be to transport important artworks out of the city when roads were passable.
"This is a transforming event in a city’s life," he said. "Even though New Orleans has been around for 200 years, I wonder whether it can survive."
The failure of climate control systems in other surviving museums poses a danger, said Ed Able, president of the American Association of Museums in Washington. Able said 126 institutions – art museums, historic buildings, zoos, aquariums and others – lay within the affected zone.
"All in all, we’ve got definite collection damage across the affected areas," he said. Added to that were fears that dozens of small and tenderly cared for historic houses – blips on the nation’s cultural radar but important parts of the Gulf region’s identity – had been smashed into oblivion.