Museum Water Emergency Preparedness

What is Preparedness?

Preparedness includes all pre-event activities to minimize or eliminate damage during a water emergency. While efforts to prepare for an emergency will clearly divert resources from the many other day-to-day activities of institutional operation, the rewards will be high in the event of an actual water-damaging event. The vast majority of preparations for water emergencies for inkjet prints will coincide with those for all collection materials types, for instance performing a risk assessment, pre-establishing lines of communications, having salvage and clean up supplies on hand, etc. But there are also many necessary preparations which are inkjet specific.

General Disaster Plan

Field Guide to Emergency ResponsePreparations to successfully respond to and recover from any water emergency, whether, large or small, necessarily address issues much deeper and wider than the needs of any particular collection material such as inkjet. All disaster response begins with human safety and that may restrict retrieval of objects from wet environments for prolonged periods of time, potentially further exacerbating damage to the objects. This is why a detailed and complete disaster plan is critical for all institutions. Without such a broad plan, any specific strategy to deal with inkjet prints will be moot. As emphasized above, time lost due to failures in communication must be minimized, so responders can quickly begin the salvage process. Supplies to enable recovery and cleanup should be readily available. Data from catalogs describing where items are located and what media they are constructed of must be accessible. A safe area must be designated where materials can be relocated as they are removed from water. These topics are not within the scope of this project; however, a large number are resources are available to institutions needing to develop a disaster plan or improve and update an existing one. An important and helpful starting point for information and guidance is the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic works website.


After a general disaster plan is in place, steps can be taken to prepare for water events specifically for inkjet. The first is education of staff on the nature of the materials, followed by identification skills for the various sub-types, as well as an appreciation of what can actually happen to inkjet prints during water emergencies.

Materials and processes of inkjet

DP3 WorkshopThis website includes descriptions of the materials and processes of inkjet including variations in printing equipment, colorants, and substrates. It is highly recommended that this information be reviewed and understood prior to the occurrence of water emergencies. In addition, there are many other sources of information such as those listed in the recommended reading section of this website. While both of the above are helpful, the optimal approach will be attendance at an in-depth workshop on the subject of inkjet or digital print care. These are taught regularly by IPI as well as other organizations such as the Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation and the Getty Conservation Institute. The value of hands-on learning in this area cannot be overstated, and should be part of any potential water emergency responder’s training.

Specific to water emergency response and recovery for inkjet is that some components of these materials are water soluble while others are not. These not only vary between print types but also within component layers of individual prints. These differences lead to the wide varieties of inkjet print reactions with water.

The table below illustrates which inkjet print components are sensitive and which are resistant to water (terminology definitions are included at the bottom of this page):


High Water Sensitivity

Low Water Sensitivity




Surface coatings

Polymer coatings

Optical brightening agents

Porous coatings


Fine art papers

Baryta papers

RC papers

An understanding of these sensitivities and the ability to identify prints with these variations prior to a water emergency will be critical to making the right preparations to minimize loss.


Identification, Naming and Cataloging

In order to implement any of the tactics for inkjet water emergency response and recovery, the prints in the collection must be correctly identified and cataloged. In addition, it will be helpful for responders to have enough skill to approximately identify prints during an event, as some may become detached from their labels and other access markings.


Learning IdentificationInkjet print identification skills are not easy to learn. Proper education and lots of practice will increase accuracy. This website has an interactive online print exploration and identification tool that can be very helpful in self-developing a rudimentary understanding of print attributes and differences. Still, as stated above, hands-on teaching by an expert will provide the best training in this area. For some print types there are specific tell-tale signs the lead to a singular conclusion about print type, but for most it will be a collection of multiple pieces of evidence that will lead to a final determination. Working with known print sample sets and a good teacher will be instrumental in developing this important skill.

Media Naming, Descriptive Terminology, and Cataloging

The most basic term should be inkjet print as opposed to common synonyms such as giclée, archival pigment, or digital print. But additional descriptive terms can significantly increase the understanding of the object and should be included in cataloging where possible as well as other institutional records. Names and descriptions built from the information in the table below will be the most helpful to educated responders as each term reveals weaknesses and strengths of a given print type. Note that the descriptive terms below nearly match those of the table above that highlights the various water sensitive and resistant components of inkjet prints.








Mixed dye/pigment




Fine art


Resin-coated (RC)


For example, a dye inkjet on porous-coated fine art paper may actually be more resistant to water than dye inkjet on uncoated fine art paper. This demonstrates how important proper naming, labeling, and cataloging will be to those responding to a water emergency containing inkjet prints.

Awareness of Potential Forms of Damage

The Atlas of Water Damage on Inkjet-printed Fine ArtIt is important that responders have a sense early on of what they might encounter. Many inkjet prints will be completely destroyed instantly on contact with water, which can be disheartening, but other types may fare better. If initial discoveries are of delaminated or severely bled prints, responders should continue the recovery process as prints in much better shape or nearly unaffected may soon be found. The Atlas of Water Damage on Inkjet-printed Fine Art provides terms, descriptions and illustrations of the most likely forms of damage that will be encountered. This book prides names and definitions for each potential type of damage along with illustrations of each form of harm. It is available online free of charge ( and in print for $25.

The video below demonstrated the instantaneous effects of water on most inkjet print types.


Defensive Storage

Defensive StorageBecause many inkjet print types are severely damaged on contact with water, defensive storage practices should be taken to keep these objects out of harm’s way. The first lines of defense are storage on high shelves and or upper floors. Unfortunately, not all institutions have this luxury as existing building configurations and storage facilities may already be at ground level, or even worse below ground. For these, long-term planning to move collections up and away from potential flooding should be a part of the institution’s future strategic plans.

Beyond the above, storage housing can also help mitigate damage; however, the protection will be time limited. Having prints in plastic sleeves and in boxes can slow the speed at which water can reach objects during immersions, but water will eventually get in. In addition, plastic sleeves can help prevent transfer of solubilized colorants from one print to the next. The prints in the first set of images below shows how dye transferred from a print below onto the verso of a pigment print above in a stack. The second set of images show how well a plastic sleeve prevented the transfer. While it did not stop damage to the lower print, it saved the print on top.

Prints stacked in direct contact

Prints stacked but in individual plastic enclosures

Not only do these illustrations show how well plastic sleeves can help prevent colorant transfer, they also illustrate how dye inkjet prints should not be stored with pigment inkjet as the former is sensitive to damage but can also damage a print that would otherwise be safe.

A final strategy in defensive storage is the use of enclosure warning labels. The simple application of color-coded waterproof stickers can be added to boxes or other housings to alert responders to the sensitivities of materials enclosed within. In addition, the actual use of the color code may vary depending on the time the prints have been wetted. If response is early, focus may be on items labeled with red warnings, whereas if the items have been wetted for days, or initial inspections have shown red as being destroyed, efforts can turn to yellow and green. An example of a chart that can be created is shown below. Of course inkjet will likely not be the only collection material type and such a schema could and should be expanded to include and reflect the total variety of material types and sensitivities.

Sensitivity Categories for Inkjet

Sensitivity Categories for Inkjet



Ink Terms

  • Colorant – a substance (dye or pigment) that imparts the color to an ink or toner
  • Dye – an organic colorant soluble in the ink vehicle
  • Mixed – a printer ink set that includes a pigment black ink and dye cyan, magenta, and yellow inks
  • Pigment – an organic or inorganic colorant insoluble in the ink vehicle.
  • Optical Brightening Agents – dyes that absorb ultra-violet radiation and reemits it in the visible spectrum increasing the brightness of objects

Coating Terms

  • Uncoated – a paper that has no special coating applied to the surface to receive inkjet inks
  • Polymer – a coating on the surface of inkjet paper made up of a water soluble polymer that swells and absorbs ink during printing
  • Porous – a coating on the surface of inkjet print media made up of mineral particles in a polymer binder so that when applied ink will be absorbed into the pores between the particles

Support Terms

  • Fine art paper – a high quality paper for printmaking, watercolor, or other artwork
  • Baryta – An inkjet paper manufactured to simulate fiber-based silver gelatin photographic paper
  • Resin-coated (RC) – a paper laminated on both sides with a polyethylene film to important rigidity and resistance against water absorption
  • Canvas – a woven fabric, porous-coated inkjet substrate intended to mimic the textural and visual qualities of painting canvas