Museum Water Emergency Response

The primary activities during the response stage are assessment and decision-making. These begin at the moment of awareness that an event has occurred and end when objects start to be removed from the harmful environment. There may be a very short period of time between first knowledge of an event and when action can begin, such as when a liquid is spilled on an object and response can take place immediately. On the other hand, there may be significant delay, such as when a flood has seriously impacted a facility and the building deemed unsafe for entry for several days. Such a delay should not postpone response steps, since many actions can still be taken while waiting to improve recovery speed and outcomes when access is finally granted. The final step of response will be preparing to act. This means preparing to go into action with the right plan in hands, the correct tools, a safe place to move collection materials, a well briefed staff, and a personal willingness to be flexible as the process unfolds.


The first step in the response is to collect data that will be critical for decision-making before and during salvage. If the activities described in the Preparedness section of this website have been taken, the data should be easier to collect and the chance of material recovery will be dramatically higher.

The size of the water event may be immediately apparent or not. For example, in the case of a small spill affecting a single print, the extent of water damage will be readily visible. Also, in cases where water has inundated an entire storage area, a large proportion of prints may be clearly submerged. Still in other cases, such as when a water pipe has burst causing leakage from above, first glance may not show everywhere the water has traveled. A thorough inspection of areas potentially hidden to initial view may reveal that a much broader event has occurred than originally assumed. This is especially true when the event has occurred on an upper floor. Water may have quickly begun to descend to lower levels affecting more sensitive objects below. Again, knowing where inkjet prints are and the full scale of the event will increase chances for timely and effective salvage.

Water LineThe volume of wet prints will have an effect on the number of persons and amount of supplies needed to aid in response as well as the size of the drying area for print recovery. Thorough inspection of all affected areas is important to accurately determine how many prints have been involved. If access to the environment was delayed for any reason, then it is important to note that the water level may have been previously higher and that objects now above the waterline may have once been below it and completely immersed for some time. Using visual clues such as a waterline on a wall or in the stacks of materials themselves can help determine what has been wetted and what has not. In the illustration, objects that were located between the current water level and the water high mark will likely have been submersed for a period of time and should be treated as such.

The volume of non-wetted items is an important recovery parameter that can easily be overlooked. It will be human nature to see what is most wrong during a disaster. Seeing collection materials immersed in soiled water is heartbreaking and the desire to rescue them will be strong, but look at the good in the situation as well. Many items may be above the waterline and will, for the moment, still be unharmed. But just because inkjet prints are currently dry does not mean they are safe, the elevated relative humidity of the affected area could cause dye bleed, print blocking, or mold growth if not addressed in time. Knowing the volume and potential risk to non-wetted materials may lead to the decision to focus salvage efforts on the objects that are currently dry and potentially fully recoverable.

The types of prints and the time wet will be the primary drivers for recovery prioritization. As has been shown, many inkjet prints contain water-soluble components while others contain water-resistant components. And still others may contain mixtures of both. Awareness of what types of prints will be within the affected environment and where they are located will allow responders to concentrate on the prints most likely to have positive recovery outcomes and not waste time on objects likely destroyed. Again, proper preparation, where storage boxes have been given color codes to indicate the sensitivity of prints inside, will be extremely helpful in making this assessment on the fly in the chaos of an actual emergency.

The time wet can be used along with print damage timelines to predict that state of various types of inkjet prints. Eventually all prints must be rescued as they may be needed for insurance purposes; however, efforts during the event should focus on first salvaging prints that may be recoverable and for some types this will be time sensitive.

Print Damage Timeline

The type of water affecting the prints will determine if a rinsing step is needed during the recovery process. Note that the goal of rinsing will be only to remove debris and not fully clean prints, as that will need to wait until after prints have been dried and stabilized. If debris is not an issue, such as when a tap water pipe breaks and only clean water contacts the prints, then the rinsing step can be eliminated which will speed overall recovery. If dirt and debris are an issue, then this step will be necessary to reduce the chance of large particles becoming permanently embedded in print surfaces.

Dirt Stained Print

The relative humidity of affected space and intended drying areas must be measured and monitored. The relative humidity of the affected space can aid in deciding whether to focus initial efforts on removing objects that were not wetted but could be very sensitive to elevated moisture levels. The relative humidity of the drying area will also be important as lower RH speeds drying and can aid in recovery, while high RH not only slows drying but can lead to additional colorant bleed, print blocking, and mold growth. The optimal RH of the drying area should be between 30% and 50%, though 20% to 55% may be tolerable, especially if any attempts to further moderate humidity would detract efforts from rescuing more collections materials. Too low an RH level may also be a problem as it can lead to over drying and greater levels of physical deformation or surface cracking.

Once all of the above data has been collected, a clearer picture of what has happened and therefore what steps need to be taken will begin to emerge.

IPI's PEM2 Datalogger

Relatively Small Events

In the case of a spill or minor plumbing failure where a single or relatively few objects are wetted but not immersed, the same assessments still need to be made, though the process will likely be faster and easier. The type of object may already be known along with the level of saturation and the time wet. In this case, the decisions will likely focus on to how to remove any excess water from the print and how best to dry it. A written assessment of the event may not be needed, and in fact may delay recovery. Documentation of the event and the response and recovery should be performed afterwards and included with other conservation documentation for the object.

Spilled Water

In the photo above, a beaker of water has spilled onto the surface of an inkjet print lying on a table. A reflexive reaction to quickly mop up the water could prove moderately successful or disastrous depending on the type of print. If it is a pigment ink on an uncoated fine art paper, a gentle blotting action would remove the excess water and leave little to no trace of damage. If the print were dye ink on polymer-coated RC paper, the blotting action would not only spread the solubilized dye making the stain larger, but it may also tear or destroy a portion of the fragile surface layer. Taking a moment’s thought to fully consider what has occurred, to what, and the best response will improve outcomes.

Larger Scale Events

For large-scale events, detailed written descriptions of all the above assessments may lead to better communication and decision-making. They must all be considered collectively and quickly, but it’s better to spend a little more time trying to come to the right decision than move into an overly rapid response. The effect of water on inkjet prints can be dramatic, but a few minutes of thought after a pipe break or a few hours of deliberation after a major flood can significantly improve outcomes. Mindlessly grabbing boxes of prints out of water will likely tire or injure the responders, as well as put the prints at risk of additional significant damage.

9/11 Memorial Flood






















Decision Making

Once the assessments have been made, good decisions based on the data collected can begin to be made.

Decide Whether to Start with the Wet or Dry Prints

The first decision will be whether to start salvaging the wet or the dry prints. If the entire floor area is inundated with many inches of water, there is danger of both dramatically increased humidity as well as accidents that may land currently dry, and potentially salvageable, objects into water. Also, since inkjet prints can be very sensitive to high humidity resulting in color bleed, blocking, and mold, a very wet environment such as a completely flooded floor area can raise the RH to unacceptably high levels throughout the affected space. The response assessments will have already determined whether the prints will be subject to this risk. And remember, the higher the RH, the shorter the time will be until irreversible damage occurs. Generally, RH values below 60% will be safe in terms of humidity problems; however, there will still be the risk of handling accidents during recovery that can put dry objects at risk of becoming wet. As stated in the Preparedness section, many inkjet prints can be destroyed immediately on contact with water, so this is a very serious concern. The recovery environment may be chaotic, and attempting to move large amounts of materials very quickly can result in bumping objects off shelves or inadvertently toppling stacks. For these reasons, responders should be instructed that speed of object removal will not significantly increase success over a slow and orderly process. In addition to human mistakes, there is also the risk of shelving collapses due to water weakening of the shelving materials themselves or the heavy weight of soaked collection materials. These are risks for both collection objects and responders and each potentiality should be discussed with those involved in the recovery. Note that even if a temporary storage area for the dry materials is above 60%, it will still likely buy time and mitigate the risk of water contact. The table below shows the number of days before dye migration will start to show, so if the RH of the affected area or the drying area is at 75% RH prints must be moved out before 7 days. If the RH is 80% or above, they should be moved out immediately, or drastic steps should be taken to quickly reduce the moisture in the air.

Relative Humidity

Days to Bleed

60% RH or below

No bleed

65% RH

28 days

70% RH

21 days

75% RH

7 days

80% RH or above

Less than 24 hours

The table applies only to dye prints or mixed dye/pigment prints, as pigments prints will not bleed at high RH. But when in doubt, move them out. Additionally, IPI’s dew point calculator can be used to determine the amount of time before mold germination at various high relative humidities. Mold risk will apply to all prints – dye and pigment. It can be found at

Decide where to move dry prints for safety

Selection of spaces to store dry materials removed from the water emergency area should have been preselected during the disaster planning process. It is possible, however, that adjustments will have to be made if the event is large and widespread enough to have inundated areas that had originally been expected to be safe. In addition to spaces within the facility, it is possible that spaces in other buildings or nearby institutions may have to be utilized, though transport can add another set of logistical problems. Remember that simply moving inkjet prints to higher shelves within the affected area will likely not adequately protect the materials.

Decide where to move wet prints for rinsing and drying

As for dry prints, before moving wet prints, there needs to be a safe place to put them. Again, potential options should have been identified during the disaster planning process. The chosen area may need to be equipped with resources for rinsing as well as drying. Enough surface space to lay prints flat to air dry will be needed. If it is unavailable, freezing prints may be necessary. Since some prints may be too large for available freezers, including those provided by professional recovery vendors, so the largest prints should be air dried first while the smaller are frozen. Measurements of humidity in all potential drying areas should have already been performed during the assessment phase, so suitable areas below 50% RH, and preferably even lower down to 30%, will have been found. If adequate drying areas below 60% RH cannot be located, objects may need freezing to prevent additional damage including mold growth.

If prints have been in dirty or salty water they will need to be rinsed to remove excess debris and any easily solubilized substances. In this case a knowledge of the range of sizes of the affected prints will aid in creating a rinsing area that will safely accommodate the materials as well as allow responders to move prints in and out with enough surrounding space to prevent accidental physical damage, as the prints will be significantly more prone to tears, abrasions, or folds.

Prioritization of Recovery for Wet Prints

Whether the decision was made to first recover all dry prints or to go directly to recovery of wet materials, success with wet inkjets prints will be improved when materials are rescued according to their inherent sensitivities to water. Unfortunately, the great array of inkjet prints types, each with its own unique sensitivities to water damage, can make such an ordered response difficult, especially if the prints are not stored together by type but by some other categorization such as content, artist, date, etc. This is where the warning label system described in the Preparedness section will come in very handy. Starting with red labeled materials, it can quickly be determined, depending on the damage found, if continued efforts should move on to those with yellow labels.

If the warning label system was not used, staff memory of where sensitive objects are located (which will not be reliable especially in the stress of a major event) and the collection catalog (if accessible) will be the only guides. The default approach will be to save the dye inkjet prints before the pigment prints if there is immediate access to the flooded areas. As time goes by and days have passed before access to the building is allowed, the chance of dye inkjet recovery drops dramatically. A few may survive, but most may be lost. In this case, switching to the recovery of the pigment prints may be the best bet. Establishing the conditions of the first few dye prints during salvage may help decide whether to adjust efforts toward pigment-based objects. The following recovery prioritization chart was developed from the experimental data of the DP3 Project.

Respond ASAP

Retrieve Next

Retrieve Last

Dye on uncoated fine art

Dye on coated fine art

Dye on polymer RC

Dye on baryta

Dye on porous RC

Pigment on porous RC

Pigment on coated fine art

Pigment on baryta

Pigment on uncoated fine art

Other factors may play a part in the decision-making process as well, such as the volume, types, and sensitivities of other collection material types as well as monetary value of specific objects or their value to the institution’s mission. These considerations should be addressed during the planning process and not impulsively during the recovery.

There is one particularly important point to remember for inkjet-printed images. Inkjet-printed images are not true photographs which were designed to withstand wetting during processing. This means that while many guides for water emergencies state that traditional photographs can stay submerged or 48 hours, this does not apply to inkjet.

Decide Whether A Professional Recovery Vendor Is Needed

If the event is simply massive and there are just not enough responders, resources, or time, then a professional recovery company may be needed. This is not the time to vet potential vendors. This should already have been done during the disaster planning stage with all contact information at the ready if such an event were to occur. A list of commercial salvage companies is available on the NEDCC website listed below. While potentially very expensive, it will be cheaper than losing collection materials. It is important however, to note that these companies may not be experienced with the specific needs of inkjet-printed materials, so institutional staff who are familiar with these particular collection objects should work close with the commercial professionals to insure best outcomes.

Below are disaster response assistance providers with staff that have been trained, or are in the process of being trained, in inkjet print care:


Preparing To Act

While the disaster plan developed and written before the event will be crucial in providing a general framework for recovery, the truth is that every water emergency will be unique. The response assessments and decisions made will have hopefully provided a clear plan for the situation currently being faced. At this point, the staff can begin preparing for the upcoming salvage. Equipment and supplies necessary for this particular recovery will need to be collected. This includes everything necessary for working in the affected environment as well as in the rinsing and drying areas. Having a different person manage each area will be helpful, since taking materials out of water with no prepared place to put them can result in greater damaged because the frequency and duration of handling saturated inkjet prints will go up and with it the wear and tear on these sensitive wet objects.

Inkjet prints need to be air dried if possible and done so individually and face up. This means broad surface areas will need to be covered with blotter papers for the prints to dry on. As stated above, if the event involved dirty or salt water then a rinsing station may also be needed. Unfortunately the area for rinsing and the areas for drying may not be co-located. Carts and/or sturdy secondary supports will be needed to prevent physical stresses on the objects while carrying them and should be readily available.

Finally, the staff performing the recovery operations will need to be briefed. This includes the individual assignments to be carried out as well as instructions on what sorts of information must be fed back to the managers during the salvage. For instance, if the water has spread further than expected, whether the records for materials are proving accurate in guiding the order of recovery, or if prints being removed from water appear beyond recovery, etc. This also means the recovery managers will need the right mindset and a willingness and ability to adapt on the fly as the process or recovery unfolds. Only after the assessments and decisions have been made, the supplies necessary for recovery collected, the rinsing and drying areas established, and the responding personnel briefed can the safe and orderly recovery the objects can begin.