Smithsonian Team Restores Hurricane-damaged Legislative Records and Archives

An archival journal after being restored (Photo from Smithsonian team presentation)

In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, government officials realized legislative records and archival journals stored in the basement of a building in Cruz Bay had been nearly destroyed after the basement flooded.

“During hurricanes Irma and Maria, the archival storage area where our records were stored on St. John was flooded to the point where the records and other material were underwater for months,” Sen. Myron Jackson said at Tuesday’s Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging hearing. “Through the efforts of our collaboration with local authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a plea was made to the Smithsonian Institution for assistance. Dr. Richard Kurin came to the rescue and organized a team of conservationists and archivists to visit the territory.”

An archival journal before being restored (Photo from Smithsonian team presentation)

Smithsonian Institution Ambassador-at-Large Dr. Kurin said the relationship between the museum and the territory is not new. “A lot of the relationship between the Smithsonian and the Virgin Islands goes back to Hurricane Hugo,” he said.

“[Hurricane Hugo] really devastated the island, and as a result, we enacted the Folk Life Festival in the National Mall in 1990 as part of the recovery at that time,” Kurin said. “The Virgin Islands Carnival was not on the Virgin Islands, but on the mall in Washington down between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. It was really a tremendous outpouring and demonstration of Virgin Islands culture.”

With a relationship already established with the territory, and after seeing the devastation caused to the records by hurricanes Irma and Maria, Kurin and his team were able to put a plan together to save the legislative records.

“Now these records have been salvaged, saved and preserved for posterity,” Jackson said.

But when they were first seen by the Smithsonian’s team, the records and journals were filled with mold that left purple staining, suffered from broken and brittle pages, and had even sustained insect damage.

A stack of legislative records lay nearly unrecognizable after being damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria. (Photo from Smithsonian team presentation)

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Senior Book Conservator Katie Wagner said, “We came back in July of 2018 to remove the items and bring them to the U.S. for treatment.”

The treatment used was a vacuum freeze-drying technique that allowed the documents to be dried within two weeks. The traditional freeze-drying technique without the use of heat and pressure would have taken two years.

Of the 20 volumes brought back for treatment, Wagner said 18 were deemed salvageable. “One of the volumes, all the text had just washed away,” making it unsalvageable, she said. “And the other was printed on glossy paper that had fused together creating one brick.”

Mold spreads over the pages of an archival journal. (Photo from Smithsonian team presentation)

To salvage the records, the team had to plan for six months before beginning the endeavor. Wagner said this included coming up with a process to rid each page of mold, lining brittle pages with Japanese tissue, rebinding, labeling and scanning.

The Smithsonian team was able to save 7,376 pages of the legislative records, all of which they say will eventually be available for the public to view online.

The records and archival journals were set to be back in the territory in March, but due to the ongoing health crisis, they are still with the Smithsonian’s team until it is safe to travel.