In the wake of a massive fire at the 200-year old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, cultural leaders, fire officials, life safety authorities, and the press have zeroed in on the widespread underfunding of cultural institutions; the overall disrepair of arts buildings; and the safety deficiencies that further exacerbate fire incidents in museums around the globe.
This year’s National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Hugh Eakin wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post about the treasure trove of Latin American history that went up in flames at the Museu Nacional on the evening of September 2. As reported, the former 19th century royal palace was home to more than 20 million artifacts, including audio recordings of languages no longer spoken, Greco-Roman artifacts, dinosaur fossils, Egyptian mummies, and many more irreplaceable finds. Lives were spared because of the timing of the fire, but the building and an estimated 90% of the contents were ravaged by smoke, flames, and water.
For years, NFPA has worked with the Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro fire departments, and more recently with the fire service in the states of Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Paraná, Pará, Ceará and Goiás to help authorities address fire safety challenges and strengthen local protocol. Interestingly enough, last October NFPA technical staff presented on NFPA 909, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties - Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship and NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures at a seminar organized by Fundabom (São Paulo Fire Department Support Foundation), in partnership with the São Paulo Fire Department and Brazilian Architecture Council. During that program, NFPA and others addressed different aspects of historical building fire protection so that the São Paulo Fire Department could review and revise their standard related to the protection of historical and cultural buildings.
Data from the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums) indicates that budgets for cultural institutions have dropped from 38% to 24% since 1989. In the Post piece, Eakin wrote, “As we witness the Brazil tragedy, it may be all too easy to conclude that this is a poor-country problem. It’s not. It is a warning for all of us.” The article goes on to quote J. Andrew Wilson, a museum adviser and former head of the United States’ Smithsonian’s fire protection program, as saying, “There exists a cavalier attitude in this country that ‘fire won’t happen to me.’” This same sentiment was echoed in The Los Angeles Times story entitled, “Think the museum fire in Brazil can’t happen here? Think again.”
By all accounts, the museum in Brazil was seriously underfunded. Other transgressions have been noted as well, including political issues, ignorance of safety concerns, disregard for employee warnings, and a general disinterest in the arts and history that put the building and its contents at risk. The building also lacked sprinklers and working fire hydrants.
With all these factors at play, what happened in Brazil is certainly saddening, but not surprising.
Clearly, more can and should be done to protect institutions that house the history and heritage of any group, culture or nation. Without proactive, practical steps in place to champion and enforce fire and life safety, public buildings will continue to be at a greater risk for hazards and heartache.