Life

How Do Museums Protect Their Collections From Fire Risk?

Wouldn’t normal sprinklers be just as dangerous for the collections?

Drone view of Rio de Janeiro's treasured National Museum, the roof of which is largely gone after fires ravaged the building for five hours
Drone view of the remnants of Rio de Janeiro’s treasured National Museum
Mauro Pimentel/Getty Images

On Sept. 2, a fire burned for more than five hours in the halls of the National Museum of Brazil, reducing the 200-year-old building to a charred husk. Described by a candidate in the country’s upcoming election as “a lobotomy in Brazilian memory,” the extent of the fire’s damage won’t be fully known until salvage efforts are completed, but it’s estimated that almost 90 percent of the museum’s collection of 20 million items was at risk of irreversible loss. In a piece for the Atlantic, staff writer Ed Yong describes in devastating detail what we know to be lost at this point, including the last remaining audio recordings of languages no longer spoken, five million butterflies in the etymology collection, and an irreplaceable collection of pterosaur fossils.

What makes the unquantifiable loss more tragic is that by all accounts it could have been prevented. According to the New York Times, as of 2004 the museum didn’t even have a fire suppression system, and concerns about the museum’s susceptibility to fire had been raised since the 1950s. The most recent, a citizens compliant filed on July 27, “included photos and pointed to specific hazards like the use of flammable plastic on the roof, uncovered wires, and other evidence of jury-rigged wiring.” In June a financing plan with the state-run bank BNDES was announced and money apparently disbursed to install “an adequate fire safety system,” but it’s clear those changes hadn’t yet been implemented.

One of the challenges of designing systems for buildings like the Museum of Brazil is balancing the fear of fire itself with the damage that typical fire suppression systems like sprinklers can inflict on precious artifacts. But according to the experts I spoke with, that balance can really only be considered post-mortem. “In many cases after a sprinkler system controls a fire, people focus on the extent of water damage because the fire damage is controlled by the sprinkler system,” Frederick W. Mowrer, the director of the fire engineering programs at California Polytechnic State University, said in an email. “What they may fail to consider is how much more extensive the fire and water damage would be without the sprinkler system, as in the case of the Brazil Museum fire.”

In other words, water damage can only be lamented when the collections in question haven’t been burned to the ground. According to Robert Solomon, director of building fire protection codes at the National Fire Protection Association, the fire suppression and safety systems for museums are generally the same as any other building. While engineers installing the systems might take aesthetic continuity into account, using copper rather than black steel for overhead sprinkler pipes in historical buildings, the principles remain the same. “We found over the past 180 years or so that automatic fire sprinkler systems are super-effective at controlling and containing the fire, and that means I’m going to minimize my property damage,” he explained.

Most major cultural institutions like the Louvre or the Met would have an automatic sprinkler system installed, especially since there are experts on staff who are already trained in restoring artifacts and paintings that have suffered damage from the elements. The real collections in trouble are those are that are underfunded or struggling to keep the lights on, Solomon said. Those wouldn’t have the resources necessary to upgrade older fire protection systems or to repair electrical infrastructure that could spark a fire. While it’s been a few years since a museum the size of the National Museum of Brazil suffered a tragedy like the one we saw this weekend, smaller museums housed in historical buildings go up in flames far more often. With each of these preventable—or at least containable—tragedies, it’s not just property we lose, but invaluable pieces of the human experience.