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The Notre Dame Fire: Just How Safe Are Our Cultural Sites?

By Bree Evans

In April 2019, the world was completely captivated for hours when a fire broke out in Paris’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral. International media ran continuous coverage of the event, and by the time the fire was extinguished, the spire of one of the most famous buildings in the world had fallen. A great deal of attention was paid to the extraordinary efforts of the Paris firefighters in suppressing the fire, as well as to the outstanding reaction of the city in quickly removing and saving much of the cathedral’s art. Immediately, donations and pledges to rebuild began pouring in. The prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the incident and recently announced that it had found no evidence to suggest the fire was criminal in nature. However, that did not stop some of us from wondering if it had been an attackꟷespecially on a country that has been hard hit by terrorist attacks in recent years.

Notre Dame is not the first cultural site to be struck by disaster. In September 2018, a faulty air conditioning unit set the Brazil National Museum on Fire, destroying the building and most of its collection. The 1966 flood of the Arno river, in addition to killing more than 100 people, devastated museums, libraries, and archives in Florence, Italy.

Accidents are not the only threats cultural sites face, either. In May 2014, an ISIS-affiliated man shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. In March 2015, nineteen people were killed by gunmen at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. In August 2017, a sixteen year-old boy shot six people in the local library of Clovis, New Mexico, killing two. Even back in 1965, the U.S. government successfully prevented a plot to destroy the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Washington Monument.

There are more than 30,000 museums in the United States alone, to say nothing of the thousands of local libraries and historic sites nationwide. Many of these institutions are small and have no metal detectors or security guards. In addition, many of these sites are financially strapped and struggle to update their fire suppression, electrical, and HVAC systems when such an update becomes unavoidable. These problems tend to be compounded when private funders, corporations, and local, state, and federal governments tend to prefer to grant project funds—money that goes toward a specific exhibition or community outreach initiative. Operating grants, the ones likely to fund updates to sprinklers and cameras, can be few and far between for many of these organizations. As the NonProfit Times recently stated, “A general operating grant is the most prized type of funding award. In the best circumstances, it’s a significant chunk of money handed to your organization with the magnificent instructions to ‘do what needs to be done.’” Unfortunately, some of the major federal grant providers are either legally or effectively prevented from awarding operating support, or construction, purchasing or renovation support. See for instance the U.S. Code provisions governing the National Endowment for the Arts, which generally require funds be allocated to projects, productions, or workshops.

Regardless of an individual’s feelings regarding state-subsidized funding of the arts and humanities, it is inescapable that this country has many of these institutions. There are an estimated 850 million visits to U.S. museums each year, which according to the American Alliance of Museums, is a greater attendance figure than for all major league sporting events and theme parks, combined. Like sports stadiums and theme parks, these institutions are soft targets, particularly vulnerable to physical security threats. However, unlike sport stadiums and theme parks, these institutions are largely overlooked by national security analysts and policies. (For a Department of Homeland Security publication that fails to expressly address threats to cultural sites, see Security of Soft Targets and Crowded Places-Resource Guide.) Also, unlike sport stadiums and theme parks, historic cultural institutions may make emergency preparedness a unique and dangerous challenge—collections storerooms may contain hazardous and flammable materials, historic buildings may still have asbestos in the walls, or, as happened with the Notre Dame fire, the walls may release hundreds of tons of poisonous lead dust into the local atmosphere.

The majority of cultural institutions consider the safety of their staff, patrons, and collections their paramount responsibility, and many have started crafting Disaster Preparedness Plans in response. However, there is a real threat to these institutions that should not be overlooked because they do not fit the mold of the traditional concerns of the national security field. Our defense agencies and legislatures need to apolitically analyze how we can help these institutions improve their security, for the safety of staff and all attendees. The United States could learn from Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency, which has sought an increased budget to better protect sites from fire risk, specifically citing the Notre Dame fire. While limited in scope, this is clearly a step in the right direction, and one made proactively. Cultural institutions are critical to local economies, and in the interest of protecting our economy, we cannot let safety concerns get so severe that visitors stop attending these institutions, as some attribute a recent drop in visitors to UK museums to. Outside of government, it would be helpful to see a de-stigmatization of private support for operating expenses in these institutions. In particular, we should hope to see more grants directed at security, like the 1772 Foundation Historic Preservation Grants aimed at fire protection and security systems, restoration, and repair work.

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