Saving History Saturday: What the Notre Dame Fire Can Teach Us About Historic Preservation and Natural Disasters

On April 15, 2019, the worst happened. For fifteen hours that day, the 900-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. On top of losing her roof and spire, the cathedral had suffered catastrophic damage to her interior, causing the loss of irreplaceable relics, artwork, and other artifacts from early-Christian history. We do not know the precise cause of the fire yet, but we in the history community can take away valuable lessons in the way we preserve and protect our most valuable historic resources.

The interior of the Notre Dame Cathedral was extensively damaged from the April 15, 2019 fire. Courtesy of ABC News.

Unfortunately, disasters are a constant threat to historic structures: fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, arson, vandalism, et cetera. Other disasters can include criminal activity, light and UV radiation, dissociation, pests, and fluctuating humidity and temperature. Disasters are at times out of our control, but many times disasters are caused by human error. One of the most common issues is a lack of proper maintenance. Some historic preservation experts have hinted that the lack of proper maintenance for electric lines may have caused the fire in Notre Dame.[1] The 2018 fire that incinerated nearly 20 million artifacts at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro was caused by “exposed wires and poor safety standards.”[2] Though many sites are unable to afford major fire suppression or security systems, they must have emergency preparedness plans to mitigate damage and have a plan for preventing such disasters.

Though the risks are extremely high and costly, many institutions do not have the emergency plans nor the equipment to prevent disasters. According to a 2016 report from the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Kentucky, only 25 states have explicit emergency preparedness plans for their historic resources. Further, only 13 of those states actually have specific strategies to deal with those disasters.[3] The National Trust for Historic Preservation stresses the importance of disaster planning, saying that “a lack of preparedness leads to inadvertent loss of or damage to these resources—either through lack of weather-readiness, proliferation of fire hazards, structural instability, delayed response, hasty decision-making by local officials, etc.”[4]

Many of the world’s top archival institutions discuss the need for planning and maintenance. The Smithsonian’s Assistant Director of Fire Protection and Safety argues that “The most important factor in preventing a fire loss is through the maintenance of a good fire prevention program.” Though he is speaking directly about fire, prevention programs for all disasters and threats is key. This includes addressing possible causes, installing proper control systems, and writing a plan. Procedures and policies to prevent controllable disasters are key and can be applied to all historical institutions.

A visual guide to the many risk factors for cultural institutions. Courtesy of International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)

For one, all museums and historic sites need to identify risks, know their potential damage, and have an emergency preparedness and prevention plan. In such a short article, we cannot cover the many types of disasters and plans for sites, but we can provide guides from internationally-recognized organizations to help. The American Alliance of Museums has an extensive guide to developing an emergency response plan that follows their accreditation programs.[5] Additionally, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property has a free guide to risk management.[6] Creating a plan is a low-cost, but imperative, way to prepare and respond when disasters strike.

The Notre Dame fire has caused most historic sites, museums, and other cultural institutions to look at their own disaster prevention plans and address any risks that have been neglected over the years. With the loss of irreplaceable artifacts and the near-loss of an entire structure, we need to use this disaster as a lesson. These structures will not be around forever, but we need to make sure they last for generations to come. Once we lose a structure or an artifact, it is lost forever.

Sources:

[1] “Electrical Short Eyed as Possible Notre Dame Blaze Cause, Report Says – Live Updates,” April 19, 2019, CBS News, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/live-news/electrical-short-eyed-as-possible-notre-dame-blaze-cause-report-says-live-updates/.

[2] “The Fire That Destroyed Rio’s Museum Was Waiting to Happen,” September 6, 2018, The Economist, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/09/06/the-fire-that-destroyed-rios-museum-was-waiting-to-happen.

[3] Linda Poon, “Why Historic Preservation Needs to Be Part of Disaster Planning,” April 8, 2016, CityLab, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/04/why-historic-preservation-needs-to-be-part-of-disaster-planning/477318/.

[4] “The Case for Planning,” The National Trust For Historic Preservation, accessed  April 19, 2019, https://forum.savingplaces.org/learn/issues/sustainability/disaster-relief/disaster-planning.

[5] Developing a Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan, American Alliance of Museums, 2018, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Developing-a-Disaster-Plan-2018.pdf.

[6] A Guide to Risk Management of Cultural Heritage, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, 2016, accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.iccrom.org/wp-content/uploads/Guide-to-Risk-Managment_English.pdf.

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