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Rescuing History: Museum experts across Michigan race to save the Midland archive

Rescuing History: Museum experts across Michigan race to save the Midland archive
May 29, 2020 Kathy Johnson

For three long days, Terri Trotter – president and CEO of the Midland Center for the Arts – waited anxiously for floodwaters to recede far enough that a team of experts could assess the damages at Heritage Park and the Doan Center in downtown Midland, Michigan.

The Midland County Historical Society Doan Center located in Heritage Park houses a research library and archive comprised of thousands of historical documents and photographs, Trotter said. Many of these artifacts are original documents that are irreplaceable, she said.

Situated along the banks of the Tittabawassee River, Heritage Park and the Doan Center are popular destination for residents and visitors.

“We’re next to the river,” Trotter said. “We planned for floods.”

Tuesday morning, hours before two dams 13 miles upstream would fail, Trotter and museum personnel were already preparing for a flood event. The area had received a record-breaking amount of rain on Sunday and Monday. The county had issued flood warnings.

Museum staff, previously restricted by the state’s COVID-19 shelter-at-home mandates were allowed to return to secure the facilities and collections.

Items in basement storage areas were temporarily moved upstairs. Floors were cleared of items.

“We prepared for a worst case 30-year event,” Trotter said. “Not a 500-year event.”

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19, the spillway at the Edenville Dam collapsed. Shortly after, the floodwaters breached the Sanford Dam downstream.

A wall of floodwater raced toward downtown Midland. Thousands fled their homes with only minutes to spare. With the help of community members and emergency responders 10,000 residents managed to evacuate in time.

Midland County Historical Society is cleaned up after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached and flooded Midland, Mich. (Photo courtesy of Midland Center for the Arts)

Midland becomes Atlantis

The Midland Center for the Arts provides individuals of all ages with the opportunity to engage with “art, science, history, music, theatre, dance, film, summer camps and live entertainers all under one roof,” according to the organization’s website.

The Center is comprised of two campuses, Trotter said.

The main campus houses the Museum of Science and Art, a 1,500-seat auditorium, the 400-seat Little Theatre and a 97-seat lecture/recital hall. The main campus is about a mile from Heritage Park and considered to be outside of the Tittabawassee River flood plain, Trotter said.

The History campus at Heritage Park includes the Doan Center; the Bradley Home, a fully restored 19th-century Victorian residence; a smaller carriage house; and the Albert Dow Museum, which highlights the early years of Dow Chemical and founder Herbert H. Dow.

When floodwaters reached downtown Midland, Heritage Park was submerged under 5 feet of water for three days, Trotter said.

“I was most worried about the archives,” she said.

Community Assist

By Friday, the floodwaters had receded enough for Trotter and museum personnel to begin assessing damages.

As expected, the main campus fared well. Flooding was contained to one quadrant of the lower level, Trotter said.

“There didn’t appear to be any damage to the performing art spaces or artworks,” she said.

The History campus at Heritage Park received the brunt of the flood, according to Trotter.

The basement of the Bradley Home, built to withstand flood events similar to the record event of 1986, filled with water. It seeped through the floorboards and covered the first floor of the historical home with an inch of water.

“Thankfully,” Trotter said, “it looks like we only lost the wood floors.”

The archive inside the Doan Center was Trotter’s main concern.

“I kept thinking of all the boxes, shelf after shelf of boxes all filled with documents. So many are one-of-a-kind. It broke my heart to think of losing them.” Trotter said. “They are the stories of who we are and where we come from and the idea of losing all that…”

Water, including high humidity, can quickly destroy artifacts.

“Mildew and rot start within about 48 hours,” she said. “So, preservation is time sensitive.”

Thankfully, help was already on the way. Within hours of the Edenville dam failure, Trotter began receiving text messages offering support.

Midland County Historical Society is cleaned up after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached and flooded Midland, Mich. (Photo courtesy of Midland Center for the Arts)

The Michigan Museum Association put out a call to members across the state. Midland needed their help. Forty professionals from 21 cultural organizations across the state – including the Detroit History Museum, Air Zoo, Motown Museum and Grand Rapids Public Museum –  stepped forward and volunteered to assist.

Managing this type of restoration effort is always difficult, Trotter said. Trying to organize the effort during a pandemic has been extra “challenging,” she said.

In addition to the 40 professionals, 120 community members volunteered. The museum professionals were divided into teams and assigned a group of community volunteers to assist them. Everyone wore masks.

The teams spent Memorial Day weekend sorting through damp artifacts, carrying boxes, ripping up carpets, removing drywall, cleaning and performing dozens of other tasks.

“Triaging every artifact is a big job,” Trotter said.

The Doan museum director, archivist and history curator lead the rescue operation. Artifacts not directly damaged by the flood were still at risk due to high humidity levels. These items were transported to the lobby of the main campus where the back-up generator is still maintaining a cool and dry environment.

Trotter estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the collection sustained damage.

“The key to saving wet documents is freeze drying,” she said.

Freeze drying is a multi-step dehydration process by which water is extracted without shrinkage or structural damage. It’s commonly used to preserve food like strawberries, pasta and even ice cream.

“First you have to get everything frozen,” Trotter said. Most museums maintain on-site freezers for preservation needs she said.

Saginaw Valley State University immediately offered their freezer space.

“SVU took as much as they could hold,” Trotter said.

The Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids also made room in their freezer. In addition to Doan artifacts, Trotter said the small independently run Stanford Historical Organization, whose property sustained significant damage, is also sending items to the Ford freezer in Grand Rapids.

Restoration specialists for documents, artwork, textiles and clothing have already been contacted, Trotter said. The historical museum’s artifacts require specialized restoration.

The cost for saving these historical artifacts is still unknown, Trotter said. But she is optimistic.

Throughout a global pandemic and a 500-year flood the Midland Center for the Arts has not only survived but has continued to provide virtual opportunities for engagement.

The Midland Center for the Arts website hosts virtual walking tours, online art classes, at-home science experiments, singing lessons and much more. And Trotter said they do not plan on stopping.

“When I first walked in, I saw mud and water all over the floor, and things had been jostled around by the water. Then I saw a photograph on the floor in a puddle of mud and I thought, ‘Oh no,’” Trotter said.

Yet, solely thanks to the support of staff, community members, and volunteers, Trotter said they expect to save all the damaged artifacts. Some might not be in quite the same condition, she said. But the addition of a few watermarks simply adds to the archive’s history as reminders of the 2020 flood.

“History doesn’t stop,” she said.


Read more on the Midland dam breaches on Great Lakes Now:

Midland Flooding: Climate change and rains exacerbate dam infrastructure issues

Flood raises fears of pollution at Michigan toxic waste site

More Than Dow: Chemicals, contaminants and untreated sewage all washed out by Midland dam breaks


Featured image: Midland County Historical Society is cleaned up after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached and flooded Midland, Mich. (Photo courtesy of Midland Center for the Arts)

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