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Partnering for Safer Exhibits

On an early morning in September 1970, a fire at the National Museum of American History (then the Museum of History and Technology) destroyed almost the entire third floor. In response, the Smithsonian Institution developed fire safety standards above those of the legal building codes. Now, Andy Wilson, associate director of fire protection services in the Office of Safety, Health and Environmental Management (OSHEM), ensures that all materials used in building exhibitions at the Smithsonian adhere to the highest standard of fire safety.

As building standards and safety regulations increase over time, commonly used materials need to improve to meet the needs of the Institution.

OSHEM Mila Wall Presentation

mila-wall® is a moveable wall system which allows galleries to be easily reconfigured between exhibitions. While these types of portable walls have been a godsend to designers and installation teams around the Smithsonian, their use at the Smithsonian only came to the attention of OSHEM about a year ago. Until recently, these walls were constructed out of materials with a fire safety rating of Class C, which fail to meet Smithsonian standards. The Smithsonian’s standard for exhibits in areas with sprinkler systems is Class B rated, and for areas without sprinklers, Class A rated materials must be used.

The Office of Exhibits Central works with many of the museums and galleries who currently use mila-walls. As a central contact point, OEC worked with OSHEM and the manufacturers of the modular walls, MBA Worldwide, to express the Institution’s concerns and find a workable solution.

mila-wall old and new

In response, MBA has developed new “B1” panels that are built with Class A rated materials. These safer walls are compatible with the 100 series system, allowing museums with the older walls to add to their inventory without having to replace everything all at once. The new panels are made of cement-bonded chipboard and an aluminum framework. All materials are either recycled and/or recyclable. OSHEM has also agreed to allow galleries throughout the Institution to continue using their existing Class C rated panels until they need replacement.

OEC is also taking the lead on a cooperative initiative to coordinate and track the inventory of mila-walls owned by the different galleries around the Mall. This new program will allow museums to share currently owned resources, and may enable them to purchase new panels in bulk at a discount, saving the individual museums and the Institution as a whole, money at a time when budgets are tight. For more information, email Scott Schmidt, OEC Fabrication supervisor.

top photo: Andy Wilson (left) discusses fire safety regulations with exhibit staff from across the Smithsonian.
bottom photo: The insides of the new B1 Class A fire rated mila-wall® (left) and the old 100 series (right).
photos by David Liston

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