The terrible fire at the National Museum of Brazil has shocked and saddened us all. Thankfully there have been no reports of loss of life or injury. But the loss of so many irreplaceable artefacts – Egyptian mummies, frescoes from Pompeii, and the 11,500-year-old remains of a woman known as Luzia – is a real loss to humanity. The collection also included audio recordings and documents of indigenous languages, many of which are now extinct. The fire has ensured that they will remain that way.
In the digital world we live in, it seems strange to imagine that there was no back-up. But archiving collections is a costly and time consuming business. And the museum was so under-resourced it ran a crowdfunding campaign last year for a new stand for the dinosaur skeleton. It also had no sprinkler system.
The Museum was a trusted space. Somewhere to look after hugely important things. A place where people could learn and share. The impact of its loss is difficult to imagine.
An article in The Economist yesterday began: Rich museums should help poor ones conserve their treasures. Well, I agree to some extent. After all, INTO is built on that kind of community collaboration. But no one’s history is safe from fire. In this country, we’ve seen the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building gutted by fire twice in the last five years. And the National Trust’s own Clandon Park was severely damaged by a blaze in 2015.
Fire expert Chris Marrion attended our INTO conference in Victoria in 2011 and would probably say it’s all in the planning. Physical ‘fire engineering’ but also disaster preparedness, education, capacity building and awareness raising. Chris went on to advise the National Trust for Slovakia (after another catastrophe at Krásna Hôrka, caused by careless children trying their first cigarettes).
Our thoughts are with Rio. In the coming weeks many museum boards across the world will be reviewing their processes in light of the fire. And some, big and small, in different parts of the world and with different sized budgets, will be crossing their fingers.
Fire Safety in Historic Buildings (National Trust for Historic Preservation)
Rescuing Historic Resources: How to respond to a preservation emergency (National Trust for Historic Preservation)
Controlling Disaster: Earthquake Hazard Reduction for Historic Buildings (National Trust for Historic Preservation)
Advice on dealing with the effects of flood water (National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland)