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Miami museums hunker down ahead of Hurricane Irma

Florida declares a state of emergency and Miami Beach residents are urged to evacuate

Helen Stoilas

Hurricane Irma passes through the Caribbean NOAA

As Hurricane Irma makes its way through the Caribbean towards southeastern Florida, where a state of emergency has been declared, museums are preparing for the category-five storm by closing early and taking precautions to safeguard their collections and staff. Soon after the Miami Beach city and Miami-Dade county mayors urged residents to voluntarily leave Tuesday evening, ahead of what is expected to be the biggest evacuation of the area in 12 years, a slew of museums announced that they would be closing on Wednesday, 6 September before the hurricane makes landfall. “This is a powerful storm which poses a serious threat to our area,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at a press conference. “We will be taking some extraordinary actions to ensure that the residents of Miami-Dade County are safe.”

The Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), The Wolfsonian—FIU, ICA Miami, Dimensions Variable, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Faena Art all announced they would be closed on Wednesday and remain shut through the weekend, and have cancelled events scheduled during that time.

PAMM, which opened in a new building on Biscayne Bay in 2013, was purpose-built for extreme weather. According to a spokeswoman, the exterior hanging gardens are engineered to withstand category-five hurricane winds, the museum is on an elevated platform that protects it from flood surge, and the windows are made from single sheets of hurricane-resistant glass that were tested in a Germany facility where 2 x 4 pieces of wood were hurled at them at high speed. “Safety and security are top priorities at PAMM, and storm preparation is something we focus on year-round,” says the museum’s CFO, Mark Rosenblum, in a statement. “We are being very proactive in preparing the exterior and interior of the museum to make sure the art, facility, and surrounding areas are secure.”

A spokeswoman adds: “In the event of a major hurricane, we would de-install as much of the art as possible, starting with the most sensitive works—something particularly rare, works on paper that are sensitive to humidity and temperature levels—and secure them in art storage.” The museum staff—collegially called “the PAMMily”—has also been given time off to prepare for the storm.

The ICA Miami’s new building, which is due to open to the public in December, has also been built to weather major storms. A spokeswoman says that “the collection is currently being held in a state-of-the-art storage facility, which also adheres to hurricane codes”.

The expanded Bass Museum, which is still under construction and is due to open in October, has an emergency plan in place and is taking steps to protect the building, collection and employees. “As a precautionary measure, for example, we are de-installing the Sylvie Fleury's Eternity Now neon on the façade of the museum and taking other precautionary measures to safeguard the building,” says the museum’s Executive Director Silvia Karman Cubiña. “Our number one priority is ensuring that our staff and community are prepared for this event and we hope everyone remains safe during and after the storm.”

Meanwhile, museums in Cuba could also be at risk from Hurricane Irma. The historic centre of Old Havana, which holds the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Museo de la Revolución as well as many of the city’s landmark buildings, was hard hit by Hurricane Ike in 2008, a category three storm. While the island country is used to dealing with major storms, the National Civil Defense Staff has so far only instituted a hurricane watch and warned residents to look out for further information from Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology. Hurricane Irma is expected to skirt Cuba’s northern coast by Friday.