Brazil museum fire: what are the chances it could happen to an Australian museum?

By Angela Heathcote 18 September 2018
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Fire is just one of many threats museums face; how well protected are the priceless collections stored in Australia?

BACK IN 1882, a fire broke out in the Garden Palace, located in the southwestern end of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. It was a large exhibition hall that showcased the achievements of the new colony over the past century – all the best collections on display, including some lent from the Australian Museum in Sydney. In just a few hours, on the 22 September that year, it all burnt to the ground.

“It highlighted the issue of having everything housed under the same roof, said Kim McKay, Director and CEO of the Australian Museum. “The strategy we now have is moving collections offsite to very secure locations, like the purpose-built facility at Castle Hill, which is a strategy also adopted by the MAAS and the Sydney Living Museums.”

Unfortunately, Kim said, there’s absolutely no way of knowing what knowledge was lost in those collections in the 1882 fire. “We don’t know what was lost. It wasn’t beautifully documented as it would be today. That body of knowledge is now unknowable to us. Yes, we have lists of objects but those could be anything and detailed photographs weren’t taken at the time.”

Museum fires are devastating. They rip through thousands of years of scientific, artistic and cultural histories, irreplaceable and invaluable. When Kim caught word of the recent fire that broke out at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio De Janeiro – destroying 90 per cent of its collection – she watched the footage live. “I was devastated, I really was. I felt absolutely sick, because I know how passionate the staff and scientists are.”

Following the event, reports surfaced that the outbreak of fire may been “inevitable,” after years of underfunding, which sparked conversations around duty of care of the world’s museum collections. The museum reportedly had no sprinkler system, no fire suppression system and no hydrants, meaning the fire brigade had to pump water from a nearby lake, adding precious time to the start of the rescue efforts.

Kim said that underfunding may be partly to blame. “It’s difficult in developing countries because there are so many demands on a government’s budget. However, we saw the Olympics in Rio recently, and a lot of money went to that event on the basis that it would boost the economy and national awareness, but that’s been at the expense of other institutions.”

garden palace fire

The Garden Palace after being destroyed by fire.

The threats to our museums

The National Museum of Brazil, similar to the Australian Museum, is 200 years old and their collections are both around the same size, meaning Kim can comprehend the weight of the task ahead for the collection managers. “It’s a major responsibility for any museum director to ensure that you’ve got the best possible defence against all sorts of threats to the collections.”

According to Kim, in the event of a fire at the Australian Museum, sprinkler and suppression systems are in place. The museum also has a system where a fire triggers an automatic removal of oxygen from a collections storage area, which is then replaced with a gas that won’t burn. And, as previously mentioned, the Museum is constantly keeping collections moving, whether that be off-site or lending to other museums.

Then there are the day-to-day threats that the museum is preoccupied with, mainly pests and invasive species. “I noticed in the Brazil collection they had recently done some crowdfunding to get rid of pests in their dinosaur collection. Pests can destroy valuable collection items overnight and often visitors accidentally bring them in with their backpacks or on their clothing.”

The museum is lucky enough to have a Materials Conservation unit, made up of staff who are experts in collection management. “Taxidermy is very vulnerable to pest infestation because of the materials they were made with back in the day. We’re also looking at humidity and temperature control, we have a group of people whose job it is to ensure that this is all protected.”

Digital safety

To safeguard the collections and make them more accessible, the Australian Museum has invested a lot of time in digitising over a million objects through their citizen science project DigiVol. The initiative was started by the manager of Digital Collections and Citizen Science at the Australian Museum, Paul Flemons.

The NSW Government has also formed a digitising taskforce, with all museums represented, but because of the size of the Australian Museum’s collection, gaining funding has been historically challenging. “We’ve put in applications over the years but have been unsuccessful, and eventually, with Paul’s initiative, we just took it into our own hands,” said Kim.

“In July we did our millionth transcription and we currently have 3356 volunteers signed up. If we keep going at the current rate it still might take us 160 years. But having the new task force is good because we’re heading in the right direction. It gives us a chance to look at the state’s assets and how they can be properly recorded.”

Kim admitted, however, that digital replicas still cannot replace something that’s been destroyed. For the museum in Brazil, she said they’ll have to spend a lot of time salvaging what they can and looking to other museums in South America and around the world for assistance.

“I’d imagine once the strategy is put in place for the rebuilding it would be a matter of seeing what could be donated back or loaned to rebuild the collection, and what new expeditions could be undertaken.

“Brazil is a wonderful resource with the Amazon and its diverse wildlife, there would be many ways to rebuild their collection. But also, they would want that reassurance that the museum is up to code so this doesn’t happen again.”