Aftermath at the Academy

After sustaining significant fire damage, the Academy is on the fast track to recovery. Just before midnight, August 29, a fire ignited in the Academy's main store. In less than 45 minutes the fire, which reached an estimated 1,000° Fahrenheit at the ceiling, had reduced the store to ashes, melted model planets suspended from the ceiling in Earth and Space Hall, and spewed out corrosive soot throughout the east side of the building.

While the San Francisco Fire Department's rapid response quickly extinguished the flames, staff, professional conservators, and hundreds of cleaning specialists have been working fast to save important collections from pervasive smoke and water damage.

"The first step was to identify and remove those items at highest risk of further damage," says Senior Collections Manager for Geology Jean DeMouthe, the first collections manager to arrive onsite. Woolen Navajo rugs from the turn of the 19th century hanging two halls away from the fire were quickly relocated to another part of the Academy and left to dry. Careful not to grind ash into the fabric while handling the rugs, a simple vacuum job was all they needed. Inspection under magnification revealed that the fibers are clean.

gray whale
A dusting of ashes covers this gray whale skeleton that hovers over the Biodiversity Center. Photo Diane T. Sands.

Yet some precious objects in the heart of the fire survived virtually unharmed, including the original, handwritten Academy meeting minutes from 1874 to 1879. The hardcover book, protectively sealed in a display case designed and built by the Academy's engineers and cabinet shop, was a mere 20 feet from the blaze.

Ironically, the fire itself created more collections: some burned debris such as a badly melted exit sign will be placed in the Academy's archive to document the event.

mastodon teeth
Protective resin applied to this mastodon fossil that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire bubbled to the surface due to the heat of August's fire. Photo Diane T. Sands.

Each item poses a separate challenge. DeMouthe enclosed moisture-loving desiccant with rusted and "water-logged" meteorites to dry the space rocks. The rust will be physically removed. Archivist Michele Wellck built a makeshift "humidification chamber" to rehydrate rare photographs curled by water damage. Once they regain flexibility, the black-and-white prints can be pressed flat without cracking their emulsion.

Some items such as a photo album from the Academy's 1905-1906 expedition to the Galápagos Islands require special attention and will be sent to a professional conservator.

humidification chamber

This makeshift "humidification chamber" is helping to restore rare, water-damaged photographs. Photo Diane T. Sands.