Innovative Procedures for Interventions on Cultural Heritage in Emergencies: A practical case

By Cristina Escudero Unit for Risk Management and Emergencies in Cultural Heritage (UGRECYL) – PROCULTHER Focal Point (Spain)

Cultural heritage (CH) is the result of a society and it is framed in time and space; in it, are inscribed all the knowledge, beliefs, ways of acting and understanding accumulated and developed in each era, in short, people’s ways of living are a reflection of their past cultural heritage ; that is why cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource that needs to be preserved and protected from the consequences of disasters.

Given this premise, we can say that, regarding CH, there is no such thing as a small disaster, by virtue of its legacy from the past that strengthens us in the present, since the damage and destruction that disasters generate will always be too relevant in terms of loss, only varying in scope of intervention based on established priorities. CH emergency response refers to those actions carried out following adverse events in which sites, buildings,  collections or single assets have been affected – i.e. any cultural typology- and their objective is to stabilize and secure structures, objects, and to rescue property; these operations are aimed at preventing losses, reducing damage and recovering the uses and functions that support the conservation and preservation of intangible heritage.

An example of a response is the intervention carried out by the Unit for Risk Management and Emergencies in Cultural Heritage – UGRECYL in collaboration with the Emergency Military Unit (BIEM V) in Almenara de Adaja, Valladolid (Spain), after the impact – last July, of lightning on the bell tower of the town Church.

State of the sculpture of the Virgin of the Assumption
(main altarpiece)

This event had dire consequences, causing damage to the building’s structure that was quickly restored by the owner (Bishopric of Valladolid) to prevent further deterioration. More spectacular were the effects inside the building, where the shock wave affected the main altarpiece, completely dislodging its structure and causing the fall of numerous elements that were ejected at a great distance destroying a small side altarpiece which was in turn severely damaged, breaking into hundreds of fragments after its impact on the ground. Following the assessment of these assets, a two-day operation was carried out in three phases, relying for its realization on UGRECYL (1) for technical direction of the works and the necessary protocols and procedures to follow, counting on the support of a USAR team (2) for its execution.

Procedure followed:

  • Deployment of means, analysis and documentation:
    • Preparation of storage materials – expanded polystyrene for the storage of small fragments,  pallets for the collecting of sculptures and large elements – and preparation of all the material needed for an exhaustive documentation of the entire process – labels, plans, diagrams and photos of the damaged building and altarpieces
    • Graphic analysis with a drone, obtaining a perspective from above to document the situation of the fragments and pieces spread on the floor of the church, very useful for future reconstruction and visual access to the upper areas of the main altarpiece, allowing for an accurate assessment of the severity of the situation.
Recovery of pieces and fragments using grids
  • Action on pieces and fragments scattered on the pavement – systematized collection:
    • Articulation of the work space into four sectors according to each area’s specific requirements
    • Systematization of the recovery process with a mobile grid for an organized and documented collection process; placing the vertical axes and moving the horizontal axis according to the work progress. The mobile grid system allows the adaptation to the particularities of the space and depending on the concentration of elements to be rescued.
    • Labeling of each item collected, recording its position and relevant information in the sketches and files associated with the action protocol
    • Packaging and storage.
Dismantling process of unmounted and displaced sculptures of the main altarpiece
  • Stabilization of the main altarpiece: disassembly of displaced and/or dislodged parts / elements and securing  the structure in place
    • Scaffolding  installation.
    • Removal of sculptures and dislodged elements in danger of falling; placing special emphasis on the entire labeling and documentation process
    • Securing the structures remaining  on site  by use of tensioners.
    • Packaging and storage.

Reiterating the importance of exhaustive documentation of the entire process, referencing the position of all collected/dismantled elements and carrying out a detailed inventory-record: this information facilitates the future recomposition of the assets -both of the various pieces and of each altarpiece as a single unit- despite its broken up state, with numerous fragments  found in various grids and sectors.

Recomposition of a small column base whose fragments were scattered in different sectors

The operation was completed within the scheduled time and allowed to apply the protocols and procedures drawn up by the Junta de Castilla y León for this type of situation, previously tested through drills and exercises. This is a preliminary work that highlights the importance of a joint effort  between emergency responders and CH technical experts in order to establish a common language, become familiar with the protocols and improve intersectoral coordination.
If this emergency intervention had not been carried out, the initial damage to these altarpieces would have been aggravated by the appearance of new alteration phenomena; the rescue operation in fact helped mitigate these processes. Its recovery and storage in stable conditions allowed to gain time for the owners to be better prepared to face its restoration, which represents an opportunity for the future for this cutural heritage, which, although modest, is still meaningful for the rural community that lives there and of which they are part.

Original version of the article in Spanish
Video/summary of the intervention

(1) The technical unit of the UGRECYL was reinforced with two conservators-restorers belonging to the same institution, specialized in altarpieces
(2) UME’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams have developed capacities in the field of CH
(3) Point out the importance of the graphic material previously compiled from the inventory of assets and the close collaboration of all the institutions and actors involved

Acknowledgments: Military Emergency Unit (BIEM V), Bishopric of Valladolid, bishopric architect, parish priest, mayor and all the population of Almenara de Adaja and to all the technicians who joined the UGRECYL to resolve this situation with dedication and enthusiasm.