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Notre Dame Fire Highlights Preservation For Local Museums

Notre Dame Fire
The fire at Notre Dame started at about 6:20 p.m. on Monday, April 15, 2019.

The world watched in dismay Monday as fire ripped through Paris’ Notre Dame, destroying much of the roughly 850-year-old Gothic cathedral’s roof and spire. As support pours into France and the country looks to rebuild, the fire has preservation experts in our region reflecting on their own restoration efforts and disaster preparedness. 

Firefighters at Notre Dame were able to stop the flames before major structural damage could be done. And the more than 100 firefighters dedicated to retrieving the building’s objects were able to recover priceless artifacts such as the crown of thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis.

At Fort Ticonderoga in Essex County, New York, Director of Collections Miranda Peters says the response clearly shows cathedral staff communicated well with first responders.

“And that’s really important for disasters – you can’t guarantee that museum staff who know the collections so well can enter a space where a disaster has occurred," she says. "So having those lines of communication open with first responders is really important, and something that we’re working on here.”

The rescue of some artifacts came by pure coincidence. Notre Dame was already undergoing an extensive restoration, and several important statues had been moved out days before the fire. Other rescued artifacts are at the Louvre museum. While it may seem common sense, Fort Ticonderoga Curator Matthew Keagle says a removed “triage location” and documentation of where things are is a major step to any disaster response.

“Any museum needs to know what they have and the condition of those artifacts so that if a crisis does happen you have a benchmark that you can look back and say ‘Before this fire, before this flood, this is the condition that this object was in,'" he notes. 

Once staff recovers everything it can, the next step is to examine the damage that’s been done to the artifacts. Keagle acknowledges fire will affect various materials differently, and that “fire damage” also involves smoke, water, and chemical effects from firefighting efforts. In the case of Notre Dame, Keagle says some objects may have been hurt by the fallen spire and roof. 

“There’s objects I am sure within there that have suffered from falling debris, if objects themselves have not fallen," he says. "And they may not have actually caught fire, but the stress of striking the ground, or being struck by other things is another danger that you might have to consider with any object that’s been in a situation like that.”

There’s also a more philosophical question at hand: how far should restoration efforts go? Should damage done to an artifact be considered part of its history?

Keagle says it largely depends on what can be done. Fort Ticonderoga was constructed by the French between 1755 and 1757, standing at the heart of two wars (the French and Indian War and American Revolution) and five battles. Keagle says it’s not unsual for its artifacts, like an 18th-century teacup, to bear the scars of history.

“The earthenware itself had fragmented, and we decided to reassemble the pieces of this cup and saucer so that you could see them in their full three dimensions — but you can’t reverse the burnt surface, the molten glass that attached itself to the surface of these cups from the surrounding structures," he explains.

Collections Director Peters says word that the Notre Dame fire was likely related to the renovation project is unsurprising. While restoring Fort Ticonderoga’s pavilion, she says the museum made a conscious decision to remove any rare artifacts hanging there – just in case.

“A lot of the fires we’ve seen recently…Notre Dame, even though we’re still figuring out what exactly caused the fire, [of] course the National Museum in Brazil, there was a fire in St. Louis at the Manuscript Archive earlier this spring, our neighbors at the University of Vermont, they suffered a fire at their herbarium – often times these fires recently have been happening during restoration projects," Peters notes. 

Peters says the event is a reminder to museums and monuments around the world of the importance of disaster planning and preservation. Fort Ticonderoga itself kicked off a three-year project to catalog its collections at the end of 2018. It houses tens of thousands of military artifacts dating from 1609-1815. 

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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