Cultural institutions across the world are facing the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Vizcaya is no different. In 2017 Hurricane Irma caused significant damage to the estate. On October 31 at 2 p.m. Eastern, be sure to catch a special broadcast of Beyond Vizcaya where we’ll be in conversation between three conservation professionals who were working at Vizcaya when Irma made landfall. They will recount their experiences during that time and how it informed their careers going forward. Guests include the following:
Maddie Cooper (she/her) is the Associate Preventive Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) located in Philadelphia, PA where she works with a wide range of institutions on preservation projects ranging from risk assessment and emergency planning to collections storage redesign and environmental monitoring. She held roles in conservation and collections at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens and the Wolfsonian-FIU prior to specializing in preventive conservation in graduate school, where she worked at the Disaster Research Center, the Midwest Art Conservation Center, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Maddie holds an MS in Art Conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, a BA in Chemistry from the University of Delaware, and a BA in Art Conservation with a minor in Art History from the University of Delaware.
Elaina Gregg is the Emergency Programs Manager for the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC). At FAIC, Elaina oversees the National Heritage Responders (NHR), a volunteer corps of over 100 responders trained to assist impacted institutions post-disaster, and the Alliance for Response (AFR) initiative, which includes over 30 networks nationwide. Elaina has facilitated three NHR deployments to Whitesburg and Hindman, Kentucky between November 2022 and March 2023, and has organized emergency response trainings for heritage professionals in Boston, Massachusetts, Savannah, Georgia, Los Angeles, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota over the past three years. Prior to joining FAIC, Elaina was the Collections Care Specialist for Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, Florida. Elaina has a BA in History of Art and Italian Language from Ohio State University, and an MA in Disaster Management from Florida International University’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness. In addition to her work at FAIC, Elaina serves as a Reservist for FEMA’s Office of Environmental Protection and Historic Preservation. In November 2022, Elaina deployed to Florida to assist with FEMA’s “Save Your Family Treasures (SYFT)” program following Hurricane Ian.
Lauren R. Hall is a conservator for the Office of Cultural Heritage in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations where she oversees conservation initiatives for Department of State heritage properties around the world. Prior to assuming her position in 2018, Lauren was the conservator at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Through the Architectural Conservation Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, she has managed projects for the National Park Service at Mesa Verde National Park and Independence National Historical Park. She has worked in private conservation practices in New York City and Miami. Lauren is published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation and the Association for Preservation Technology’s APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology, among other peer-reviewed journals and books. She is a National Heritage Responder, a volunteer corps through the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation that deploys to support cultural organizations in the aftermath of disasters, and a course instructor for the program’s national and regional trainings. She is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation. Lauren holds a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus in materials conservation and earned a post-graduate Advanced Certificate in Conservation and Site Management as a Samuel H. Kress Foundation fellow.
Jeff Guin (00:00:08):
Welcome to Beyond Vizcaya. The show that features the people in places neighboring Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami, Florida. I’m Jeff. And before we introduce today’s guest, I’d like to encourage you to check out all of this season’s content on climate change in the natural environment at beyondvizcaya.org. While you’re there, we’d love for you to share your Miami story by visiting our community page.
Now, today’s a little special as we’re going way beyond Vizcaya and Miami to speak with some of our old friends. People who made a big difference during a pivotal time in our history. I’d like to introduce Maddie Cooper, Elaina Gregg and Lauren Hall. They all worked in the conservation function of the estate when Hurricane Irma blew through in 2017. Welcome to you all. It’s wonderful to see you again.
Maddie Cooper (00:00:56):
Good to see you, too.
Elaina Gregg (00:00:57):
Lauren Hall (00:00:57):
Hi, Jeff. Hi everybody.
Jeff Guin (00:01:00):
So let’s go back in time a little bit, and if you just tell us a little bit about what your role was at Vizcaya and what do you do now?
Lauren Hall (00:01:08):
So I’ve been keyed up to go first. My name is Lauren Hall. I was Vizcaya’s conservator from early 2014, through the end of 2018. And before that I worked in private practice on a sitewide conservation survey of Vizcaya, so I have about 10 years of direct experience working at the estate. One of the most sublime and beautiful places on earth. Had the wonderful opportunity of working with Maddie and Elaina during my time at Vizcaya, and have since moved on to the Department of State. I work as a conservator in the Office of Cultural Heritage within the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. And we manage a stewardship program for the Department of State’s resources at diplomatic and consular facilities around the world.
Elaina Gregg (00:02:03):
Hi, everybody. I’m Elaina Gregg. I had several roles at Vizcaya from 2015 to 2020, most recently a collections care specialist. And I’m currently employed by the Foundation for Advancement and Conservation. We’re the foundation side of the American Institute for Conservation. And I’m the emergency programs manager. I oversee several emergency programs that we’ll discuss later on in today’s program.
Maddie Cooper (00:02:29):
Hi, everyone. My name is Maddie Cooper. I came to Vizcaya as a conservation intern. And then they couldn’t get rid of me, I stayed as a conservation technician, and I was there from 2015 to 2017, where I worked [inaudible 00:02:43] and Elaina on conservation projects, around the house and in the garden. And now I’m an associate preventive conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, which is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And I’m a preventive conservator there. Mostly I work with small and mid-size institutions around the country on things like emergency planning and grant writing and preservation planning and all that kind of stuff.
Jeff Guin (00:03:11):
We’re going to talk a little bit more about the trajectory of your careers in a minute. But first, let’s speak more broadly, folks that don’t know. Maddie, maybe if you just tell us what conservation professionals do specifically, and then I want all of you to weigh in on why was it a field that you initially chose?
Maddie Cooper (00:03:30):
Absolutely. So conservation professionals, there’s a couple different ways that you can take the profession. But in general, we all work towards the preservation of cultural heritage. We’re trying to preserve cultural heritage for future generations, and to steward it and protect it. So there’s a couple different tracks of conservation. I think when a lot of people think of conservators, they think of a person in a lab with a tiny paintbrush wearing a white lab coat, and that’s certainly a type of conservator. That’s what I wanted to be when I started out in conservation, treating objects in a lab. And that kind of conservator is sort of a specialist. But then there’s also conservation scientists who do scientific research, looking at the different ways in which things degrade over time and the ways in which our interventions affect them. And then there’s also conservation administrators, and I’m a preventive conservator, so we really focus on sort of big picture preservation projects. But all in all, our goal is to preserve cultural heritage.
Jeff Guin (00:04:39):
And why did you choose the field?
Maddie Cooper (00:04:47):
I guess I chose the field because I wanted to touch the stuff in museums. That was the initial thought. I don’t know. What about y’all?
Elaina Gregg (00:04:59):
I remember being exposed to conservation as a junior in high school. My high school was part of a program with the Cleveland Museum of Art in Northeast Ohio, where they showed high school students the different areas in the museum where you could be employed. And at the time, I was wrestling between wanting to go to art school or wanting to do something science focused, and realizing that there was a field that had the combination of the two. It just launched me from there. I went into college very focused on pursuing different subjects that could combine to a field in conservation. And have since kind of drifted from that, but still am adjacent.
Lauren Hall (00:05:44):
I think my interest was similarly sparked like Elaina. Actually, my mom was an OR nurse, and I wanted to help people and fix things. But I didn’t have the stomach to be in an operating room, so I landed in conservation. But my focus is specifically architecture. And I grew up in a city with a lot of historic buildings, cultural areas, beautiful, beautiful architecture. And I really love place and space, and so I ended up as an architectural conservator.
Jeff Guin (00:06:23):
Awesome. So we all worked together back in the day. And let’s just take an opportunity to reminisce a little bit about your experiences at Vizcaya. Is there any particular favorite memory of working here? Maddie, we’ll start with you.
Maddie Cooper (00:06:41):
I think one of the projects that we all worked on at Vizcaya was the sculpture maintenance project. If you’ve been to Vizcaya, you know that there are beautiful gardens that are sort of dappled with limestone sculptures and a couple metal sculptures throughout the garden. And because of the environment of South Florida and because of where we were, they got a lot of wear and tear, and so they required regular maintenance. I think we did sculpture maintenance maybe twice a year. And it was always really great, really fun, good to be out in the garden. Maybe Lauren or Elaina can talk a little bit more about the specifics of what we were using to do sculpture maintenance. But a memory of mine, if you’ve been to Vizcaya, you know that it’s a location for photographs, for quinceaneras, for engagements, for weddings. People are always taking photos in the garden, and I really wish that I knew how many photos I was lurking in the background of doing sculpture maintenance. That’s a fearsome thing to think about, but I think it’s probably many.
Elaina Gregg (00:07:51):
Yeah. Outdoor sculpture maintenance was so much fun. And I think we had the opportunity to do so many physically engaging activities at Vizcaya. One of my favorite memories is working in our offsite storage space. We were part of initial organization efforts and just felt like we made a big impact in a space that really needed some attention. So it was very satisfying and fulfilling.
Lauren Hall (00:08:20):
Maddie and Elaina were both really critical parts of an early team that included Stephania Marino, who is the collections care specialist, I believe. She’s still on staff. I believe that’s still her title. And I was hired and I was brought on to establish a professional conservation program that included a sitewide maintenance manual, as both Maddie and Elaina have said, collections care aspects, organizing this offsite storage space, supporting capital projects, establishing an onsite conservation lab. And they were really a part of all of this sort of foundational programming that professionalized care at the estate of collections and structures. And ultimately, all of that, I think in addition to many, many other efforts that the museum had been working on, both prior to our arrival, but also during our time, contributed to this Vizcaya’s receipt of the Ross Merrill Award for outstanding commitment to preservation of collections. And that’s an award that was really extremely well deserved by the institution, and also something I was extremely proud to receive on behalf of Vizcaya during my time there.
Jeff Guin (00:09:45):
Definitely a big moment for Vizcaya, to be recognized in that way. And just a quick clarification, Stephania’s title is preventive conservation manager now, so that was a fairly recent promotion.
Lauren Hall (00:09:58):
Jeff Guin (00:09:59):
All right. So let’s kind of keep in the same vein, you have your favorite memory. But also want to know if there was a place or an object at Vizcaya that was kind of special to you, and why is that?
Lauren Hall (00:10:15):
We chatted a little bit about this prior to the program, and all agreed that the Swimming Pool Grotto and the Chanler Ceiling is among our favorite spaces at Vizcaya. I mean, there are many, but it’s certainly one of the most sublime of anywhere, frankly, but certainly at Vizcaya. And from a conservation perspective, it’s this incredibly challenging space because you have all of these materials that are interacting with an extremely humid, warm environment.
One of the marquee projects that I was working on when I was there was establishing a conditions assessment and a plan for the ceiling mural by Robert Winthrop Chanler, who was this incredibly dynamic and colorful character. And his artwork reflects that very much. As does the space. So it was this whole interplay between Paul Chalfin, who was the artistic director of Vizcaya. Also a very dynamic and colorful character, but had a very different aesthetic sensibility than Chanler. And I think this space is this sort of beautiful marriage between both of these wildly creative people.
And so we had the opportunity to work with a number of conservation specialists on the ceiling. The University of Pennsylvania did a complete conditions assessment for a student thesis, of which Maddie worked on. And then we later worked with several conservators in private practice, and Elaina was really critical in moving those efforts forward. So I think we all had a heavy hand in initiating conservation efforts for that space. And I understand that they’ve continued.
Jeff Guin (00:12:10):
Indeed. So looking bigger picture, you were a fantastic team. Is there a particular conservation project that you all worked on together that was especially memorable for you?
Lauren Hall (00:12:30):
Is that me? Am I taking this one?
Elaina Gregg (00:12:32):
You can, yeah. Go ahead, Lauren.
Lauren Hall (00:12:35):
So the project we agreed to chat about here is we did a digital documentation of The Barge. The Barge being one of the most iconic features at Vizcaya. It was designed, conceived of as both a folly with a whole incredible sculpture program by Alexander Stirling Calder. Very famous, late 19th century, early 20th century sculptor. As well as a breakwater to essentially protect the most vulnerable east-facing bayside of the main house. And so it was filling this incredibly dichotomous role in terms of its function.
And it had a history of damage in storms. So a number of the statuary had been reproduced and replicas were put around the basalt rods on The Barge, and the originals were put in storage or on display around the estate. And yet there were still a number of original elements because it’s this large fixed structure. So we worked with the University of Florida to digitally document through LIDAR scanning as well as photogrammetry. And I’ll let Maddie and Elaina share more about that experience.
Maddie Cooper (00:13:58):
Yeah. It was such a great project and ended up being incredibly impactful. We’re going to talk about Irma a little bit later on. But in just documenting The Barge in that moment in time, which was a fleeting moment. The Barge will never be what it was when we were documenting it with photogrammetry. It’s sort of different from then on. And it was a memorable project, also because of the circumstances of doing the project. It was a lot of Elaina and I paddling a boat around with a professional from the University of Florida, Sujin, who was carrying with him extremely expensive, extremely technical camera equipment. And our boat had a small hole in it. So we would go out for half an hour, 45 minutes of image taking, and then go back in and bail out the boat, and then come back out.
And so it was just such a fun project and such a funny… It just sums up Vizcaya. There’s these beautiful, amazing impossibilities, and there’s so many creative ways that we can work on preservation of the site. But there’s always a Vizcaya twist, which is something that I’ll never forget about my time there.
Elaina Gregg (00:15:16):
Yeah. Also, I feel like because of the complicated nature of so many spaces at Vizcaya, including the Chanler Ceiling and The Barge, it draws so many people from so many institutions and research institutions. So being able to interface with University of Florida, and then as Lauren said, with the Chanler Ceiling Project, with so many conservators and engineers and other professionals in our field, it was just incredibly rich and a great experience, especially as an early career professional, to have that chance. And layering that with the practicality and the just real-life situation of having a boat that leaked with these highly professional people just adds a comedic element that is also quite special.
Lauren Hall (00:16:08):
Sorry, Jeff, to interrupt, but I just wanted to add, one of the really incredible things about that documentation project was that we were able to fulfill multiple objectives for the institution. So, obviously, preservation was one of them in terms of documentation, both for posterity but also for predictive modeling going forward, in terms of gauging progressive damage to The Barge. But that, excuse me, that scanning also enabled us to provide accessibility to this, as I said, iconic feature at Vizcaya, that guests and visitors weren’t able to experience firsthand. And that was largely due to our collaboration, which was a really fun project.
Jeff Guin (00:16:56):
Yeah. I’ll just weigh in here that this was my first project that I worked on in coming to Vizcaya. And one of the things that was unique about it is, yeah, we started off looking to scan The Barge for preservation purposes, but as Lauren indicated, it developed into something more. And Vizcaya became the first museum to actually adapt LIDAR and photogrammetry point clouds directly to a visitor interactive. So we have kiosks in the museum that allow you to go and use those models, to interact with them and see what The Barge looks like, on the top side and also on the other side that’s facing away from Vizcaya. So it is one of those unprecedented points of accessibility.
And I think that’s what we use technology for at Vizcaya chiefly, in addition to preservation, there’s the access component. And we also, during that project did the Swimming Pool Grotto and the Chanler Ceiling as well. That’s not open to the public, so that was allowing that accessibility, too. I’ll mention that we do have a version of those models available online. So if you go to virtualvizcaya.org, you can go in there and interact in both of those spaces.
So just to talk a little bit more about, I mentioned earlier, this season of Beyond Vizcaya is about climate change and the natural environment. And definitely you’ve already referenced you had a bit of a trial by fire in 2017, when Hurricane Irma blew through. And it definitely impacted South Florida, though there was no direct impact where Vizcaya was. Still, major damage. And I want our producer to bring up a time-lapse of Hurricane Irma coming through and impacting The Barge, which we were just talking about. Y’all can comment as the video plays. Just to be on the lookout for the red circles that will indicate when something bad is about to happen.
Maddie Cooper (00:19:10):
I’ll just say that in the days leading up to the storm, it was Jeff’s idea and the idea of one of the security officers at the time, Marvin, I’m not sure if he’s still there. But they had the idea to kind of attach the GoPro camera to the east-facing side of the house to capture this footage, which ended up being extremely affecting and also really helpful. But correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s something we planned on, it was just sort of a last minute idea for documentation.
Jeff Guin (00:19:46):
Yeah, indeed. It was Marvin Mora, was our security officer at that time. We had just bought the time-lapse camera and he said, “Hey, well, maybe we should check it out, see what happens there.” And though it wasn’t intentional, we’d already scanned The Barge, Swimming Pool Grotto. We knew that we had gotten a grant from the Knight Foundation to actually do the interactive. But never intended in our design to have something that obviously we couldn’t even know there was going to be that there serious effect that we were trying to plan for during the time we were building this experience.
But it ended up really being the glue that brought the experience together. It’s one thing to just play with a model of The Barge, but when you see The Barge doing its job and taking on that damage, has a lot more impact. And it ties people to how important the preservation and conservation function of Vizcaya is. So yeah, it really shows a lot of impact. And anytime that we’ve used this at presentations, it definitely creates empathy for the job that we have to do here on the front lines of climate change and sea level rise.
Any other comments with Elaina or Lauren?
Lauren Hall (00:21:09):
Well, I just wanted to mention, I think very few of us, there’s always a core staff. I don’t know if that’s still the policy, but it was in 2017 that there would be a few staff people that would stay at the site during a storm. Most of us had evacuated for Irma. And what is potentially remains the largest evacuation for a storm in US history, with 6 or 7 million people leaving the state of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. And I think this really gave us a sense of perspective, what does a storm at Vizcaya look like? And also an appreciation for the ingenuity of the design of the site. I mean, what a beautiful and creative solution for enhancing protection of the property. And also, how consistent, despite the fact that every storm is different, how consistent the damage can be. We can expect certain elements to take the brunt of the winds and the waves. We can expect flooding and storm surge. So that I think has very much informed planning for future impacts at Vizcaya.
Jeff Guin (00:22:32):
So I’d like for you just to go back in time before that event. I just wonder, did you have any idea of how it was going to impact the estate? I mean, obviously we didn’t have footage of prior hurricanes coming through. Could you have even imagined at that point what was going to happen?
Lauren Hall (00:22:58):
Well, first of all, Irma was a massive, massive storm of unprecedented size and strength at the time. And again, it may still even be the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, although we’ve had some doozies since. So it was this massive cat 5 storm headed straight for Miami. And the trajectory of the storm didn’t really shift until very late in the game. So I think we were all under the impression that Vizcaya… Oh, and this is a superimposed image that was actually in the Miami Herald, on the Miami Herald’s website leading up to Irma’s hitting Florida. The large storm at the bottom of the screen is Irma’s superimposed next to Hurricane Andrew cat 5 from 1992, which will go down in history in South Florida.
And so understanding the magnitude of this in relation to what historically had been the worst storm in the region, I think we were all afraid. Although, I think we were also all so busy, that I don’t think I really thought about concretely what those impacts might actually look like. We were just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to check all the boxes, before protecting our own homes and leaving. Most of us in flood-prone areas did evacuate, although a number of people stayed in town.
But I had worked on restoration efforts following Hurricane Wilma, which affected Miami in 2005. And this would’ve been in 2009 I was working on the cafe spaces, which had been completely flooded during Wilma. So I certainly was aware of the impact. I certainly was aware that a recovery and restoration after a storm could take a considerable amount of time. But again, like I said, I don’t think… I wasn’t directly familiar with what it would feel like to live through something like that.
Jeff Guin (00:25:13):
You mentioned checking the boxes before you had to leave. Describe a little bit about that. What did you have to do to prepare?
Lauren Hall (00:25:22):
Elaina and I worked on this together. At that point, Maddie was at The Wolfsonian, but they can both fill in the blanks here. But we relied, the collections team anyway, collections and conservation team, we relied on an existing hurricane preparation plan for all the decorated rooms. So that was sort of our starting point. And then we had a number of volunteers from other divisions who worked with us to remove vulnerable objects from vulnerable spaces. So we were packing things and storing things. We were relocating things within the museum. We were sandbagging windows and doors, securing those. Rolling up all the carpets, covering them. Moving furniture away from windows and doors. Things like that. Covering things with plastic.
And then, outside of the house, we were removing vulnerable objects. So I think we took some of the light fixtures off and created them for storage during the storm. We were working with facilities to put up the armor screens on the south and east-facing facades of the house. Working with horticulture, they were in the gardens, securing plants, securing pots, laying things down, removing and storing furniture, trimming back trees and limbs. And it was a statewide effort. All hands on deck.
Elaina Gregg (00:27:00):
Yeah. I also remember at that point, the hurricane preparedness plan was in two stages. So there were activities to do for a tropical storm or a lower-level category storm, and then activities to do for a higher anticipated storm. And we obviously were following the higher protocols. But I remember we had some creative solutions for when we, for example, ran out of plastic sheeting that we were using to cover objects. I remember placing curtains into trash cans, because we didn’t have garbage bags to roll them up with. So we were getting creative and doing the best that we could. But we also were pretty good at documenting. So we went through and took pictures of every room, how it was prepared, and we used those photos and those documentation efforts to inform future preparedness planning and to make changes as was appropriate.
Maddie Cooper (00:27:57):
I guess I’ll also just add that I was at Wolfsonian at the time that Irma hit, and we were doing our own preparation. But Vizcaya, I mean, I guess I didn’t really realize this at the time, but I think about it a lot now, in that Vizcaya was a site that was very used to preparing for hurricanes. Every season there was some hurricane, some storm that the site had to prepare for. I think the year before was Hurricane Matthew, which might’ve been a tropical storm by the time it touched down, I don’t quite remember.
But everyone on the estate had a job in hurricane prep, and those jobs were carried out. And Elaina mentioned those creative solutions, but it was like a well-oiled machine almost, which is not the case as I’ve gone out into the world and worked with other organizations on their emergency plans. They don’t do this every year. They don’t get the team together every year and work on huge preparation projects like this. So Vizcaya, I think has a lot to teach the field about teamwork and about how this massive preparatory work can happen on a site. That’s a major takeaway that I’ve always had from that time.
Elaina Gregg (00:29:10):
Yeah. I also think that year in particular, leading up to Hurricane Irma, there had been several incidents that were unrelated to storms, but for example, leaks in decorated spaces or an accidental discharge of a fire extinguisher in a decorated space. There were several incidents where we had to deploy ourselves as if we were responding to an emergency, and had to deal with it in the same manner. Which helped us kind of get in that mindset, which for better or for worse, but it definitely helped us mobilize quickly.
Jeff Guin (00:29:46):
All right. So we’ve done the prep work, it is all we can do. Did it well. And then we evacuate or we’re offsite for a little bit. And then the storm hits. I want you to describe what you saw and what you felt when you finally did come back to Vizcaya after the storm.
Lauren Hall (00:30:09):
Well, before answering that, I do want to mention that after Wilma, Vizcaya had invested heavily in some infrastructural improvements to the property that in many cases worked well. And in other cases, I think gave us a little bit of a false sense of security because things fail, at the generator, for example. And I don’t remember the specifics of why, but there was a reason why it shorted and it didn’t come on. So Vizcaya did lose power.
There were some vulnerabilities around the perimeter of the property that prevented essentially the submarine doors from keeping all the water out of the cafe and shop. We had door blow open in the dining room, for example. I mean, there are just things that you cannot anticipate despite best planning efforts. And again, it’s an iterative process. You’re learning as you go, and you’re building on experiences. And as Elaina mentioned, I think, especially for the collections and conservation folks, we had had a series of small scale emergencies that we had had to deal with over the course of the previous year, that did make us a little bit more nimble in terms of how we were able to prepare.
But coming back, I think I was back in town within 48 hours, and it had been very difficult to communicate with the folks on site because there was widespread loss of power. Folks were having trouble with cell connectivity and also charging their phones. So when I was able to communicate with my colleagues on the ground, I was actually making phone calls with responders and other conservation professionals that could help us with addressing the damage. And this is actually a photo of my first day back on site. And it was really sort of a post-apocalyptic landscape, where most of the leaves had blown off of the trees or they were brown from wind burn. And it was this landscape that was totally unfamiliar to me in Miami because it looked like winter, except that it was about 98 degrees or thereabouts, and a hundred percent humidity and just unrelenting heat. And that was true at work as well as at home for most of us. And so I don’t think I was prepared for the level of fatigue essentially, that accompanied that response and recovery effort.
And it’s also quite sad and demoralizing. This is a place that you love. This is a place that represents your livelihood. And we saw work that we had spent months, years, decades, in some cases, planning for, fundraising for, undone in the course… essentially overnight. I mean, you saw it in the time-lapse video. I knew that I loved Vizcaya, but I don’t think I realized how personal Vizcaya was to me until I saw it in that state. So, as I mentioned, the cafe had flooded with water. Several of the collections were wet. Water came through the walls. That was another thing that I don’t think we were expecting. So several of the decorated spaces had water pouring through the walls, given the volume and the duration of the rain from the storm. So, like I said, you can’t anticipate everything.
Elaina Gregg (00:34:08):
Yeah. I think also, similarly seeing collection pieces and spaces that we had spent hours, days, weeks working on, I’m thinking Maddie, specifically of the rug in the dining room that we spent weeks cleaning just square by square, and then it was inundated with water. And it’s just, there is an extra level of emotional, just heaviness when seeing spaces that you are charged with caring for just in disrepair. And also, layered on top of that, the personal life response component. So returning, and in my case, I lived in an apartment building and thought certainly I would be fine. I thought that my building would put up storm shutters, they had not, and our windows blew open and there was mold in my apartment. A lot of my stuff was ruined. And so going to your workplace and seeing things in a really sad state and then going to your home and not having a place to relax and to be comfortable was really exhausting.
Maddie Cooper (00:35:20):
Yeah. I mean, I mentioned that I had recently moved to the Wolfsonian, was working as a collections assistant there, and so obviously they’re on Miami Beach, and so we were doing a lot of preparatory work in the lead up to the storm as well. And then after the storm, I was living in Coconut Grove at the time, which was quite close to Vizcaya, but I also had to evacuate because it was in an evacuation zone and was able to return home pretty soon after the storm. But we were not able to access Miami Beach at that time. It hadn’t been cleared by the first responders who were responsible for that kind of clearance. Because I was so close by, because I could get to Vizcaya and because I couldn’t get to my job, which to the space on Miami Beach, I ended up going to Vizcaya instead.
But absolutely mimicking what Elaina and Lauren said, in that it gets really difficult when you’re going to work and dealing with a physically, emotionally difficult situation, and then coming home and having to deal with the same. It’s something that I didn’t necessarily consider to be part of emergency preparedness for cultural heritage before that experience, that I absolutely considered to be a major part of it now.
Jeff Guin (00:36:40):
Maddie, that story leads to our next question, and you’re talking about how you came to be at Vizcaya during that transition. I just wonder if y’all could address how the recovery process unfolded, and if that differed in your imagination, from the preparation phase.
Lauren Hall (00:37:04):
Well, so I think, first of all, it was sobering and very fortunate that Miami was not directly hit by this storm. Unfortunate for our neighbors in communities on the west coast of Florida. But it was just such a huge storm and it had had such a regional impact, I think we were all both relieved and surprised the degree to which the site was affected, given that it essentially equated to a category 2 what hit Miami. But given Vizcaya’s proximity directly on the bay, I think we all understood we can expect storm surge, we can expect large amounts of debris in pretty much every storm. So I think it sort of helped start to prioritize things that we could address from a preparation standpoint.
So we were largely, I don’t want to say on our own, but because of the scale of the storm there just wasn’t a whole lot of regional support. I mean, everybody else was in the same boat in terms of dealing with water and debris and power outages and non-functional equipment. And there was a rush on generators and there was a rush on dehumidifiers and there was a rush on fans. So we really had to make do. It was about banding together and it was about making use of the resources that we had. I know Joel made a direct call in order to get the basement pumped out, because we weren’t able to do that with the equipment that we had on hand. And the pumps that had been installed after Wilma were non-functional. So again, it was just about problem solving.
And we were in the midst, Maddie, Elaina and I and several other of our colleagues were in the midst of training with the Alliance for Response network. There was a South Florida AFR, which is one of the programs that Elaina now manages in her position with FAIC. And so, one of my first calls was to the National Heritage responders, because I had this new knowledge, I had this new network, both regionally as well as more broadly. And so Viviana Dominguez, who is a painting conservator in Miami, was available and she came to Vizcaya, I think it was the morning after the storm, and helped with some of that very initial documentation and recommendation making, which was essentially what I used while I was in Atlanta for 48 hours to make some plans and then head back down and really put some things in motion. So I continued to rely on that network through the course of those early response and recovery days, where we were dealing with wet collections, we were dealing with a huge amount of stinking debris in the gardens. I think that that was a key support for us.
Elaina Gregg (00:40:29):
I think it’s also the case that, and I know that all three of us have spoken about this in our current professional roles in varying capacities, but it is quite a trope that following an incident, especially a hurricane of this size, there’s a great community response, there’s a lot of effort, there’s money, there’s more resources available initially, and then that kind of dwindles down. And recovery is the stage of the disaster that can be so long. It can be decades long. And I mean, personally, I had no idea at that point that recovery could be several years. And the fact that Vizcaya is still implementing projects related to Hurricane Irma is just a perfect example. I mean, there are institutions in New Orleans that are still implementing projects from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Recovery can be such a long process. And after the larger organizations leave, you are really left with your own institution, your own community. If you’re part of a network, your network. And that’s overwhelming, and it can be quite taxing when you do have to continue on with normal job functions as well.
Jeff Guin (00:41:46):
It’s interesting you bring that up because, I mean, you all have continued in careers that involve the protection of cultural heritage. I want you just to describe a little bit more about how your time at Vizcaya, and in particular, the disaster prep and response has informed what you do now. Elaina, how about you start?
Elaina Gregg (00:42:07):
Sure. For me, it’s a very linear process, from Hurricane Irma to current day. Following Hurricane Irma, I immediately, almost immediately, within a few months, decided to take my career toward emergency collections response and emergency preparedness in the cultural heritage sector. And within a year was enrolled in a master’s program with FIU in disaster management. And really, my role and duties at Vizcaya transitioned quite a bit to emergency-related preparedness, staff training, looking at emergency plans, looking at our supplies.
Lauren mentioned that training that we were doing with FAIC that summer and into the fall. Through that training, we were able to more solidly define what our AFR was going to do. I took on a role with the Emergency Operation Center to be the liaison for South Florida AFR, and sat in the EOC for several storms and the Super Bowl in 2020. So my interests entirely shifted toward emergency preparedness due to Hurricane Irma. And Lauren mentioned the National Heritage Responders and Alliance for Response, those are both programs that I oversee now. And after Irma and realizing the impact of FAIC programs and their presence around the country and their impact, especially with institutions that don’t have resources and they don’t have a big staff to support large-scale or even small-scale disasters, I was immediately inspired. Yeah, I mean, my current position is really just the perfect marriage of the two fields. So Vizcaya and Hurricane Irma were huge influences on what I do now.
Maddie Cooper (00:44:10):
Yeah. I mean, similarly, I think my experience at Vizcaya was just the most impactful professional experience of my career. When I started working at Vizcaya, I wanted to be a treatment conservator, I wanted to work in a lab, I wanted to treat objects. And the experience of working at Vizcaya and working on a team that was so people focused. I liked working with people on these big projects. And in working at Vizcaya, Elaina, you mentioned all that work that we put into cleaning the rug in the living room, and then it was just soaked in the hurricane. It was so impactful to see that these projects that you had spent hours and hours on could just be taken away like that. And so I really shifted my focus from objects to more holistic collections care, preventive conservation.
And when I went to graduate school to study conservation, I went in knowing that I wanted to specialize in preventive conservation. I knew that I wanted to learn more about emergency management. It was a new track at the time at my graduate school. I was the first person to go in knowing that that’s what they wanted to do. And so through that experience, I got to work at the Disaster Research Center in Newark, Delaware. And now in my professional role, I work with a lot of small and mid-sized organizations that are looking to do emergency planning. I love being able to connect folks with Elaina and the work that she’s being able to do. This unrelated is a video of me checking a piece of taxidermy to see if there is hazardous arsenic or lead, hazardous materials. Human health and safety, a huge part of emergency preparedness and response, so I guess it’s all related. But yeah, Vizcaya is just huge.
Jeff Guin (00:46:03):
All right. Well, Maddie, stay with me on that point. I just wanted you to tell us a little bit about some of the major projects that you’re currently working on and your role that you have now.
Maddie Cooper (00:46:15):
Sure. Well, related to emergency response, I teach emergency management for cultural heritage to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Delaware that are studying art conservation, but also history and art history. I’m also part of a team that’s working now on a method of remotely assessing risks to public art collections using GIS mapping. So trying to kind of use technology to be able to help collections plan better for emergencies. With public art collections, you can be talking about artwork spread across cities or counties or even states. These are huge art collections that are spread across a big geographic area. They could be located in public schools or municipal buildings or in parks. And if you’re an organization that’s responsible for caring for those collections, you don’t have physical access to them in the event of an emergency. So we’re really trying to create tools to help them figure out which sculpture they need to prioritize in the event of an earthquake or in the event of a hurricane or an emergency like that. So that’s a sort of related project that I’m working on right now as well.
Jeff Guin (00:47:25):
Elaina, how about you?
Elaina Gregg (00:47:27):
Yeah. So I realize we’ve been throwing out Alliance for Response and National Heritage Responders. And just to give a little more insight into what those are, Alliance for Response, that’s an initiative that is managed by FAIC, the Foundation for Advancement and Conservation. And it’s really an effort to bring together cultural heritage and emergency professionals, personnel at the local level. So in the past 20 years, we’ve helped set up over 30 networks around the country, one of which is South Florida Alliance for Response. And our role in AFR is helping networks get started. So facilitating a one-day event where everybody is in the same room, there’s networking, there’s presentations, there’s regional discussions about what your hazards are and how you should be working as a group together. And then we help networks sustain themselves by, we have several programs to do that, but one of which is through training.
So every few years we determine a few regions around the country where we’re going to go and train a group of between 30 and 40 people. Actually, Lauren is one of our instructors for those trainings. And currently we’re in the process, we just completed a training in Boston for Massachusetts-based professionals. We have trainings in 2024 in Charleston and New Orleans, and then a training in 2025 in Philadelphia. We’re also getting two networks started. So we just launched one in New Hampshire in September. And in 2024, we’ll launch another network in Arizona. But we’re also a big project, and effort is just figuring out ways to get everybody connected to each other.
So we, a couple of years ago set up an advisory committee where every network can send leadership or just members from the network to quarterly meetings, where everybody can share information about what they’re doing. Or we’ll pick a topic and everybody will share issues that they’re having with funding or member engagement or other topical challenges that seem to face everybody around the country. So yeah, just a lot of trying to connect with people. Maddie is involved in Philadelphia’s network, so she comes on those meetings. I love that I get to see Lauren and Maddie in other professional capacities now, even beyond Vizcaya. It’s really wonderful.
Jeff Guin (00:49:56):
Lauren, you want to weigh in there too?
Lauren Hall (00:49:59):
Sure. Thank you. Specific to, well, I think the ways in which Vizcaya has influenced me professionally and my career are too innumerable to mention. But specific to emergency planning, I think my direct experience with Hurricane Irma prompted me to approach colleagues in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security when I started my current position, and advocated for enhanced inclusion of heritage assets around the world in emergency action planning and the foreign affairs manual. So that language has been bolstered. There’s a better relationship between our bureaus in terms of including heritage properties and cultural heritage assets for planning purposes.
And then also, we included a crisis management chapter in a recently completed illustrated collections care manual that we produced for our colleagues, mostly our locally employed staff and diplomatic and consular facilities around the world. So it’s in the form of a graphic novel. It’s illustrated, since many of our colleagues… We wanted to be more engaging and really reach to folks where English is not their first language, and so have completed this illustrated manual, which includes a number of collections care guidelines, but includes emergency planning and response.
Jeff Guin (00:51:44):
So we’ve just been through a year where cultural heritage has taken quite a hit with many natural disasters. I just wonder if y’all want to talk a little bit about what are the biggest challenges right now to the conservation and cultural heritage fields.
Elaina Gregg (00:52:02):
Yeah. I think that with the climate crisis, the frequency of inclement weather events, the intensity of inclement weather events is only increasing and it’s overwhelming. And I think one of the big challenges is to stay hopeful, as hokey as that might sound. It’s really overwhelming and it’s hard to think about implementable small-scale actions that we can do, both at our institutions and in our communities. And we at FAIC, we have a series of resources coming out in the spring, Climate Resilience Resources, CRR, and they’re both intended to show you your risk. So it’s a mapping project where you’ll put in your address and see, based on your location and inherent risk, what different hazards are in your area. But then there’s also a second component where there’s modules to show you things that you can do to mitigate the risk and to increase your resilience.
So I think that having resources and applications to remain hopeful and to take action is a good thing and it’s a challenge. And continuing to build capacity. And this graphic shows the number of billion dollar weather and climate disasters in 2022. So there were 18 in 2022, where the previous 40-year average was 7.9. So yeah, it is overwhelming, but we need to stay hopeful and continue to do the work and do what we can, at least the local level.
Jeff Guin (00:53:47):
So Maddie and Lauren, I want you to feel free to weigh in on that question as well. But Elaina, for the folks that might be listening to this that are not members of Alliance for Response or they don’t know where do they get these climate resources for resilience, how would they get in touch with you or with an organization that would help them get there?
Elaina Gregg (00:54:08):
Yeah. So culturalheritage.org, that is our main website. Culturalheritage.org/afr is going to give you information about Alliance for Response. If you’re interested in starting a network in your region, reach out to me. I can share my contact information after this. But yeah, happy to help networks. We’re currently helping Kentucky start a network and Spokane, Washington. And those are separate from our formal process, but due to events that have happened over the past few years, it’s been necessary to get things going. So happy to help out with any of that. And there’s a whole page on Climate Resilience Resources as well on our website. Feel free to check it out.
Jeff Guin (00:54:56):
Lauren or Maddie, do you have anything to add to that?
Maddie Cooper (00:55:00):
I guess I can just say that I think one of the challenges is getting everyone on the same page in terms of when you’re dealing with the climate crisis, it’s not an isolated initiative, it’s sort of like something that has to be integrated into all levels of your operation. It needs to be top down understanding of the way the climate crisis is impacting your organization or your job or your family. And I think we need to do that as conservators as well. We’re definitely reckoning with that as conservators.
I know there’s a committee right now working on revising the American Institute for Conservation’s Code of Ethics, which is the sort of code of ethics that we work with when we are conservation professionals. It’s a guidelines for us, and it hasn’t been updated since 1997. And I was part of the committee who’s working on integrating environmental sustainability into that code of ethics, so there’s a bunch of other committees. But just hopefully moving forward we can get to a point where these ideas about the climate crisis and how we can deal with it and the cultural heritage sector is ingrained and it’s understood. And it’s not its own committee, it’s just part of conservation, is sustainability as well.
Jeff Guin (00:56:31):
Awesome. So our last question is, just given the scale of these challenges, what motivates you personally to continue to face this every day in your work? How do you keep that hope?
Lauren Hall (00:56:48):
Well, I think I can start this one. I think one of the things is tapping into some of the things that Elaina and Maddie were just saying, focusing on community and engagement. One of the most heartening things about responding to Irma were the droves of volunteers that showed up in support. And I think there’s been, within our field, there has long been the prioritization on sort of an object-centric focus. And I’ve been heartened in recent years in the increase in discourse around a people-centered focus. These places, these objects, this heritage matters because it matters to people.
And so it was really wonderful to see all of the volunteers hard at work when they clearly had personal issues to be prioritizing, come together at Vizcaya and talk about their experiences and why the place mattered to them. So their grandmom brought them every Sunday growing up, or they got engaged there, or they actually had their wedding there, or they attended a party or they attended a program. Vizcaya is a place that made them think. Vizcaya was a place that inspired them. Vizcaya was a respite. The list goes on. So that was especially heartening.
And that’s true, I think to, tying back into that point that Elaina made about hope, in addition to… it’s important to, I think, acknowledge that in addition to these more frequent and intense natural events, we’re also dealing with some pretty devastating geopolitical and humanitarian events around the world. And heritage, whether that’s tangible or intangible, and prioritizing the preservation of that materiality or those traditions in those practices is essentially the through line. It’s the common language, it’s the commonality, and it often taps into something for people when everything else sort of falls by the wayside and feels like all hope is lost, that’s the thing that people still resonate with and relate to.
Elaina Gregg (00:59:25):
Yeah. There are two things that come to mind when I think of motivation for future work. And one of them is we recently deployed three teams of National Heritage Responder volunteers to Eastern Kentucky, following they had devastating flooding in July, 2022. And several institutions of great importance to Appalachia were really impacted. So we sent three teams there and they helped Apple Shop, Hindman Settlement School, the Appalachian School of Lutherie, several other institutions in the area just go through their collections, assess them, take steps to make priority lists, and they did some physical cleaning as well. And recently we heard that Apple Shop, they received a huge grant that is going to enable them to digitize collections and hire extra staff, which is incredible. And that makes me so happy to see institutions that truly need support, get the support that they need.
And then secondly, there’s an Alliance for Response network in Vermont. Their acronym is VACDaRN, which is one of my favorites. And there was really bad flooding earlier this summer. And they were really the group that was able to organize response. So even when the federal, when FEMA came in and when FEMA’s programs that are aimed at cultural heritage and Saving Your Family Treasures came in, they were able to work with the Alliance for Response network to get to the public and get to institutions that were impacted. Which that goes back to Lauren’s point of community engagement and empowering people at the local level to respond. That motivates me, for sure.
Jeff Guin (01:01:16):
How about you, Maddie?
Maddie Cooper (01:01:18):
Yeah. I mean, I definitely agree with everything that Lauren and Elaina said. The people-first approach is something that I think about a lot. I think that caring for cultural heritage after a disaster can be extremely healing, and it’s such a privilege to be able to care for things after an emergency. I think it’s really exemplified by the amount of volunteers who came to Vizcaya after the hurricane or the folks that were responding to the events that Elaina just mentioned.
Last year, I worked with a group of students that went to Ahrweiler, Germany to treat objects that were affected by flooding in 2021. And one of the best things that we were able to do was have a community clinic where folks could just bring in their own family heirlooms and talk to us about how they were affected by the flood and how they might clean them or care for them. I mean, conservation is the preservation of things, but really, it’s mostly about people. And Vizcaya is so full of amazing people. It’s so full of amazing characters. I was chuckling when Lauren was talking about Chanler and Deering and all the crazy personalities that went into building Vizcaya and have been a part of it ever since.
Jeff Guin (01:02:41):
And now you’re part of that legacy, too. I mean, you established your careers here and have moved on to do bigger things for more folks. So you’re part of the Vizcaya story. We miss you so much here and definitely enjoyed working with you and enjoyed having this conversation. Good to see you all again. Thanks so much for being a part of this episode.
Maddie Cooper (01:03:06):
Thank you, Jeff. This was really fun.
Lauren Hall (01:03:08):
Thanks for having us.
Jeff Guin (01:03:09):
So that’s it for this edition of Beyond Vizcaya and our season on climate change in the natural environment in South Florida. We’ll be producing more content on beyondvizcaya.org, and invite you to check out our resources for contributing your own story there. Until next time, I’m Jeff. Take care, everyone.