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 cleanup 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 of 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 these 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. Training that includes simulated water emergency response for inkjet will be especially helpful as it will provide experience for responders prior to an actual event making real-life efforts less stressful and more effective when it really counts. Workshops are periodically taught by IPI as well as other organizations such as the Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation. The value of hands-on learning for inkjet cannot be overstated, and should be part of any potential water emergency responder’s training.

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.

Specific to water emergency response and recovery for inkjet is that some components of these objects are water soluble and others are not. These not only vary between inkjet 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 (definitions of these terms can be found 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. Also important is that while many inkjet prints look like photographs, they are not and should never be treated as such during a water emergency. A common run of thumb for traditional photographs is that they can be safely left in water for up to 48 hours. This is simply not true for inkjet which must be salvaged immediately.


Learning IdentificationIn 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 disassociated from their labels and other access markings. Inkjet 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 inkjet print attributes and differences. Still, as stated above, receiving hands-on teaching by an expert will provide the best training in this area. For some inkjet prints there will be specific tell-tale signs that lead to a definitive conclusion about print type, but for most it will be an aggregate of many 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 Descriptions for Cataloging

The most basic term should be inkjet print as opposed to commonly used synonyms such as giclée, archival pigment, or digital print. But additional qualifying 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 trained 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 highlight 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 can actually be significantly 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 preparing for or responding to a water emergency containing inkjet prints. IPI has a free downloadable guide to inkjet print description.

Awareness of Potential Forms of Damage

The Atlas of Water Damage on Inkjet-printed Fine ArtIt is important that responders have an awareness before a water emergency of what they might encounter. Many inkjet prints will be instantly destroyed 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 even 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. It is available online free of charge and in print for $25.

The video below demonstrates the instantaneous effects of water on most inkjet print types, but remember that prints not harmed in this demonstration may begin to develop substantial damage the longer they remain in water.


Defensive Storage

Defensive Storage

Because 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 strategy.

In addition to the above, storage housings 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. Plastic sleeves can also help prevent transfer of solubilized colorants and ink receiver layers from one print to the next.

A final strategy for defensive storage is the use of enclosure warning labels. Color-coded waterproof stickers can be added to boxes or shelving to alert responders to the potentially extreme sensitivities of materials located within. Making response priority decisions this way before an actual water emergency will save time, reduce stress, and improve outcomes. An example of color-coding system correlated with inkjet print type water sensitivities 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 in the collection.

Sensitivity Categories for Inkjet

Highest sensitivity – these prints will all show heavy ink bleed immediately on contact with water

  • Dye inkjet on bond paper
  • Dye inkjet on uncoated fine art paper
  • Dye inkjet on polymer-coated RC paper

Moderate sensitivity – These prints will show minor to moderate ink bleed and/or cracking of the ink receiver layer

  • Dye inkjet on porous-coated fine art paper
  • Dye inkjet on porous-coated baryta paper
  • Pigment inkjet on porous-coated baryta paper

Minor sensitivity – These prints may show slight colorant bleed

  • Dye inkjet on porous-coated RC paper
  • Pigment inkjet on porous-coated RC paper
  • Pigment on porous-coated fine art paper

Lowest sensitivity – These prints will likely suffer only planar distortion even after a week submerged

  • Pigment inkjet on bond paper
  • Pigment inkjet on uncoated fine art paper

Remember that the surfaces of all wet prints, no matter the colorant or ink receiver layer types, can be highly sensitive to handling which can result in smearing of colorants on a print that otherwise would have shown no bleed, or significant abrasion damage to surface layers.


Ink Terms

  • Colorant – a substance (dye or pigment) that imparts color to an ink
  • 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

Coating Terms

  • Optical Brightening Agents – dyes that absorb ultra-violet radiation and reemits the energy within the visible spectrum thereby increasing the brightness of objects
  • Polymer – a coating on the surface of inkjet print media 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 such that when ink is applied it will be absorbed into the pores between the particles
  • Uncoated – a paper that has no special coating applied to the surface to receive inkjet inks

Support Terms

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