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Protecting Your Collections from Fire

The scary truth is that all of us have had to deal with or WILL deal with some sort of natural disaster hitting our collections. From earthquakes to fires to floods, anything can happen at any moment, and the best thing you can do for your museum is to be prepared. There are 3 steps I always suggest to our clients: 1) ANTICIPATE scenarios for each type of disaster. This includes setting aside money in your budget each year for possible repairs/conservation or consultants. 2) PREPARE. Bring in a company to assess your building and collection spaces; create a disaster plan for each space and type of collection; and train your employees/volunteers. 3) IMPLEMENT. Secure your objects BEFORE disaster strikes!

I have been kept awake at night on more than one occasion thinking about all the things I didn’t have a chance to do. This feeling is always heightened after a cultural icon or museum befalls a disaster. Many of these tragedies will be discussed and dissected, used as a warning or incentive to get our collections prepared. The Notre Dame Cathedral is one of those disasters that will be talked about within our field for years to come. On April 15, 2019, just after 6pm a small fire began near the giant spire, soon engulfing it in flames. Within an hour the spire collapsed and soon the nearly 800-year-old roof was gone as well. After 12 hours the fire was contained, leaving behind the two bell towers, much of the interior, the famous rose window, and other stained glass throughout the cathedral. It is still unclear exactly what started the fire, but the current evidence directs it to an electrical short circuit, which could in turn be related to the renovations that were underway. 

While at any other time this fire would have had devastating results. Much of this was mitigated because many objects and ornamentation had been removed and stored in preparation for the restoration. Other relics were saved from the fire using a human chain, as the flames raged nearby. The majority of these items are now at the Louvre waiting their return to the historic Cathedral. So the fire, while still a terrible tragedy, was not as bad as it could have been. It remains to be seen the full extent of the damage, but I would be worried about the structure itself, specifically the mortar keeping the stones in place. The stained glass is still in place, but were there any ill effects from the fire that are as yet undetected? Finally, the roof. Built 800 years ago using trees from a forest in the 13th century, these trees are no longer available to supply the restoration efforts. While many have pledged funding and support to bring back the Cathedral, much of it will be new, taking years to complete.

It goes without saying that if at all possible, remove all objects from your facility if there is to be construction/renovations on your building. Store them in a safe place with metal cabinets and shelving. Have your HVAC and electrical systems looked at twice a year. Many of our buildings are old, and the risk of fire is great. Taking the time now to prevent a disaster, will only benefit your collections in the future.

There are as many ways to protect objects as there are different types of objects to protect. So if you have a question on one of yours, please don't hesitate to call Muse Curatorial Consulting Group today for a free consultation! (800) 715-8804

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