I’ve never seen anything like the 921 Earthquake Museum before. Built on the site of a junior high school that was destroyed by the 7.6-magnitude Chi-Chi Earthquake on September 21, 1999, the museum incorporates damaged classroom buildings and geological effects of the earthquake into the exhibits. These preserved elements provide the ultimate classroom for learning about seismology and engineering. Further, they remind the visitor of the immense power of earthquakes and why the way we choose to build matters.
The grounds of the museum are designed to flow seamlessly between interactive exhibits and the campus of the former school, which is protected and preserved to appear as if the earthquake recently happened. As you explore, you hear the voices of actual elementary school students playing at the new school built next door. It serves as a sobering reminder that had the earthquake occurred during the school day rather than at night, many children would have died at this site.
The museum has different areas devoted to seismology, engineering, disaster preparedness, and historical documentation. Each did an incredible job of communicating complex concepts in an accessible way and making the subjects engaging to visitors. As an earthquake engineer who could talk all day about earthquakes, I learned a lot about ways to communicate and demonstrate the subject.
The first hall, the Chelungpu Fault Gallery, introduces the fundamental principles of geophysics and seismology. Interactive exhibits demonstrate how seismic waves travel, the different types of faults, and how magnitude is measured. There is even a section cut through the fault to show how geologists read history through soil strata!
All along the gallery, photos display the vast geotechnical and geologic effects of the Chi-Chi earthquake. Included in the collection are photos from the museum site, of what was then the track and field for the school. The Chelungpu Fault ran right under it, and during the earthquake it ruptured the ground surface, resulting in an offset up to 5 ft (1.5 m).
Stepping just outside the gallery, you see the real thing! Aside from a new canopy protecting it from the elements, the track — torn in two places — is almost exactly as it was.
(Above, 2 photos) Surface rupture of the fault through the school’s track
Approaching the museum is a surreal experience. Lining the street, you observe several multistory buildings in various levels of collapse behind a fence. It has the effect of immediately transporting you back to the time of the earthquake, where similar scenes could be have been observed throughout the area. Once you are within the museum grounds, you have the opportunity to get closer to the buildings. It’s a powerful experience to see in-person the devastation that poor building design and construction can bring. I have worked in post-earthquake settings twice (Haiti and Napa), and I was honestly surprised by how effectively a few preserved buildings can evoke the emotional human response of being in a place affected by an earthquake.
(Above, 3 photos) Damaged 3-story classroom buildings
Of course, the preserved buildings have been stabilized to reduce risk of further damage or collapse. Where visitors are permitted to walk close to or through the buildings, substantial bracing and shoring has been added to create provide adequate levels of safety.
Where the original columns failed, new columns made of acrylic have been added as shoring. A translucent material was selected to reduce the impact to visibility.
All of the preserved buildings appear to have been built around 1970 and had the same structural system: reinforced concrete frames with masonry infill walls. This is a very common structural system found all over the world. The exhibit does a great job of explaining the causes of structural failure in the preserved buildings, which are listed below. Note: Bullet points in italics provide additional information, but may not be interesting to all readers.
- Poor design (“detailing”) of steel reinforcement in concrete columns
- too few stirrups
- poor confinement of longitudinal bars
- insufficient concrete cover
- Poor concrete quality & design
- insufficient strength
- aggregate size too big, causing poor concrete consolidation
- pipes permitted to run through columns, creating large voids
- Partial height walls along corridor (used for light and ventilation) without expansion joint at interface with column
- deformable length of the columns reduced by partial height wall (aka short column effect), making the columns more vulnerable to failure
- Cantilevered walkways added weight (and lateral forces) to columns that weren’t designed to handle them.
According to the museum, 773 elementary and middle schools were destroyed in the Chi-Chi earthquake. Many of them were structurally similar to and of the same vintage as the ones preserved at this museum.
In one area, various ways of strengthening existing building systems are showcased. It was great to see them all in one place! Several of the examples are ways of strengthening an existing column.
There is an example of a base isolator, a device used in the design of new buildings as well as in retrofits. It works by decoupling the building from its substructure. Fun fact: base isolators were installed in the retrofit of both San Francisco City Hall and Los Angeles City Hall.
There is also an example of a steel braced frame, a common retrofit method that has significant architectural impact.
According to the museum, the most common ways that similarly-designed schools have been retrofitted since 1999 are adding reinforced concrete layers to columns and/or adding wing walls to existing columns.
Earthquake Engineering Hall
The hall about earthquake engineering is comprehensive, approachable, and lots of fun! Exhibits cover basic earthquake engineering principles related to buildings, bridges, and lifelines. Here are just a few examples of the exhibits.
Detailing of reinforcement in concrete columns
Disaster Prevention Hall
There was also a section of the museum devoted to disaster preparedness. It did a impressive job of jazzing up a topic that is extremely important, yet often ignored.
They created four cute characters to lead you through major topics of individual and civic preparedness, which include (1) understanding earthquakes; (2) early warning system; (3) disaster response; (4) preparedness
Characters at Disaster Preparedness School
At the end of the exhibit, there are games you can play to quiz yourself on your knowledge, and you can even “graduate” from Disaster Preparedness School.
The 921 Earthquake Museum is a place that’s somehow heartbreaking, informative, and beautifully designed all at once. The grounds of the museum encourage exploration and reflection.