Storing artwork. High bushfire risk areas

When the fire season comes around I try to be prepared for the sudden need to leave my house because of nearby fires. I’ve packed my important things and they are all stored by the back door in case of a quick get away. Unfortunately, I have to leave all my art behind as I have too many to cart about. At least 500 pieces. Then, I found this article full of good ideas, on how to “store art and other precious items” in bushfire areas.

Prepared by the AICCM Victorian Division

Storing collections in high bushfire risk areas
When preparing for the onset of a possible bushfire, you may want to consider
shifting precious valuables off-site to a location less vulnerable to bushfires.
Otherwise, choosing the right kind of storage furniture may make a significant
difference in the event of a fire. In general, wood and glass provide better protection
against heat and soot than plastics and metals. Closed and sealed containers
provide better protection than open shelving.
Storage furniture
• Choose furniture that can be well-sealed, for example wooden boxes, trunks
and heavy wardrobes, rather than using open shelving for storing items.
• Furniture made of thick, old, seasoned hardwoods are best as they take
longer to ignite and burn and are less likely to discolour paper and textiles.
This discolouration is caused by the acids released in freshly cut timber.
• Similarly, wood products like chipboard, Masonite® and MDF are fire resistant
but emit formaldehyde and other damaging vapours in storage and during a
• Position storage boxes low to the ground but slightly raised, about 10cm
above the floor to avoid water damage.
• Aim to create as many layers of protection as possible between your precious
items and the external environment. For example, store items in acid-free
cardboard or paper pockets, folders and boxes. These can then be placed
within a wooden enclosure and kept in a heavy cupboard.
A note on fire-proof safes
Fire-proof safes may provide some degree of protection in smaller, less intense fires.
However, in extreme bushfires and at very high temperatures, the materials stored
inside tend to burn, char and even vaporise – even if the safe itself remains relatively
intact. As fire-proof safes are often made of metal, during intense heat they conduct
heat to the interior. For this reason we do not recommend that you rely on fire-proof
safes to protect your collections.
If you choose to use a fire proof safe, look for one meeting the Underwriter’s
Laboratory (UL) standards. UL standards specify the external temperatures safes
can withstand and the internal temperatures and relative humidity they can maintain.
UL-rated safes can maintain safe temperatures from half an hour to four hours in
environments of up to 1093ºC. Different models are rated specifically for the
protection of paper (UL 350), tapes, cartridges, microfilm and microfiche (UL 150),
and computer diskettes (UL 125). Model numbers specify the temperatures in
Fahrenheit, just below the temperatures at which these materials melt, scorch or
burn. To be UL-rated, safes must meet or exceed their test standards. Bear in mind
that bushfires can reach temperatures of up to 1200ºC.

Storage materials
• When enclosing materials within a crate or trunk, use cardboard and paperbased
boxes, folders and pockets where possible.
• Use the best quality material you can afford – acid free materials will provide
better long-term protection to your collections.
• Archival plastic storage material (polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene) has
many advantages, but in a fire most plastics melt at relatively low
temperatures, lower than temperatures that char paper. Different plastics
melt at different temperatures. PVC is harmful as a storage material and it
melts at 80ºC, well below archival plastics. Paper and cardboard tend to char
before they burn. Polyester (Mylar®), used in high quality photo pockets,
melts at roughly the same temperature at which paper ignites, making it the
most heat resistant archival plastic.
• Use wooden frames. Even though they become charred and will need
replacing, wooden frames have been found to provide the best protection to
the art work inside. Often, the art work will remain relatively unharmed.
• Metal frames may warp or distort, allowing protective glass to fall out and thus
expose the contents to soot and fire.
• Use 3mm or thicker glass for protection within frames, and use it for as many
works as you can. Combined with wooden frames, glass provides much
better protection than acrylic (e.g. Perspex®), which melts. Glass will
become soot-covered and may even crack, but can sustain higher
temperatures than acrylic.
• Be aware that glass is heavier than acrylic and shatters on impact. Make sure
framed works are secured in a manner appropriate to their weight.
• Use cardboard back boards, rather than plastic – 3mm or thicker, where
• Seal frames with gummed paper tape to protect the artwork from dust and
Remember that fire is only one type of risk your collection will face. Fire fighting
measures may cause water damage to items already charred and soot damaged
and increase the risk of mould.
There are many good reasons to choose plastic and metal storage furniture and
enclosures, including cost and ease of access. You may decide that the benefits of
using plastics and metals outweigh the potential risk from fire damage.
If you would like more advice about storing collections safely, please contact your
local AICCM Division or contact the Conservation Department of one of your State
collecting organisations.

The Australian institute for the conservation of Cultural material, inc.

Based on information from Kim Morris of Art & Archival, Queanbeyan; and ‘A Burning Issue’ by David
Thompson, History Victoria e-news no. 4 July 2006

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One Response to “Storing artwork. High bushfire risk areas”

  1. […] Looking through my notes from January: “Street artists painting in the heat of the day.

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