Hidden somewhere in the bowels of the National Gallery are seven crates filled with 74 delicate works of art on paper. The crates have calligraphy labels that say WW3 and the are the museum's emergency fallback, according to The Washington Post
The artworks were selected by Andrew Robison, curator of prints, watercolors, drawings, and rare illustrated books, in case of a catastrophe. They would be the works saved in the event of an emergency — and should that occur the works can be whisked away to safety to an undisclosed location.
The works, which rarely go on display because they are so fragile, were first assembled by Robison at the behest of his boss in 1979 at the height of the hostage crisis in Iran and has grown from one container, the Post reported.
The contents of the seven containers, four for European holdings, and three for American, have changed as the size of the National Gallery’s works on paper collection has increased from 50,000 items to 106,000. Only 27 percent of what Robison first placed in the box in 1979 is still there, the Post reported.
The criterion used to select the art works is varied and includes the piece’s aesthetic, historical value and “power.” “Very great quality will be more intriguing, more telling, more meaningful for visitors,” Robison told the Post. “It won’t be as meaningful if we had some sort of spread — one work from every great artist. It’d be more meaningful if we had really great works regardless of whether the artist is normally known as great or not.”
The American and European works are selected separately so one rarity from the Old World would not bump out a Winslow Homer watercolor. One of the boxes holds a John Marin watercolor of New Mexico’s stormy mountains. Robison told the Post it was donated by Georgia O’Keeffe, a fact that on its own does not earn the work a place in the box that also holds two works by O’Keeffe. “It just turns out she was right,” Robison said according to the Post.
National Gallery Director Earl Powell said that Robison’s box system is not the primary way the nation’s treasures are protected, but offers little elaboration: “We’ve got a very, very fine security program,” he said according to the Post.
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