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MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Fire in our soul: When disaster strikes, protecting precious artefacts is a matter of design

A section of the University of Cape Town's library was left in ruins after a wildfire destroyed the facility on April 19, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. It is reported that the fire started on Sunday on the slopes of Table Mountain. (Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

What can we learn from the rare artefacts, artworks and irreplaceable volumes we have lost in the fire? The answer is, partly, to do with architecture.

“The firefighters were heroic, they were smashing away the wall between the two buildings, standing on the roof, doing their utmost to keep our building from the worst of the fire. We had to make fast calls. We had little time to scour the building and make decisions before the fire department entered and began the process of hosing it down.” 

Sara de Beer describes the fire that almost burned down Cape Town’s A4 Arts Foundation in December 2020. The space housed irreplaceable work by artists from across southern Africa.

But what do you do when your precious archive of art and books is about to be destroyed?

This is the situation that University of Cape Town Director of Libraries Ujala Satgoor aptly described as “every director’s worst nightmare” as she faced the heart-sinking loss of the partially burned-down African Studies collection.

A section of the University of Cape Town’s library was left in ruins after a wildfire destroyed the facility on April 19, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

While some of their archives were unharmed thanks to fire protection systems, the university is still assessing the loss of part of its collections, which included an extensive African film collection and historic government records.

In an ideal world, both of these buildings would have been immediately protected from the threat of fire – a threat that is becoming more and more prevalent in the Western Cape.

What should fire protection ideally look like?

Most galleries, libraries and museums in the world are now fitted with fire-suppression systems that use a combination of fire doors and gases to lower the oxygen levels in a space, and extinguish the fire, given that a water system like sprinklers would be equally damaging to their contents.

Many of the rarest books and materials that form part of the African Studies collection were saved, thanks to fire-suppression systems installed in the basement of the library that stopped the spread of the fire.

This is the non-glamourous part of building and curating galleries, libraries and museums. Once the fire is detected, fire-suppression systems are automatically activated.

According to fire protection company Johnson’s Controls, the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University protects its collection of more than one million books and historic materials with a combination of halon and Inergen gases (“Inergen agent extinguishes fire by lowering the oxygen content below the level that supports combustion”). The gases are pumped into the book stacks to lower oxygen levels without putting library staff at risk.

Beinecke library director Edwin Schroeder explains that in the event of a fire, the system is triggered when two smoke detectors go off in the same area.

“The fire-suppression system goes off just in that location. At the same time all doors and dampers are automatically shut to hopefully limit the spread of the fire. Other parts of the system would go off if the fire spread. The system is designed to suppress a fire – hopefully putting it out – and assumes that the fire department will respond promptly after alarms go off.”

As much as a fire-suppression system is integral, for Iziko Museums CEO Rooksana Omar the key lies in planning and oversight.

She says fire risk is highly considered in their risk-management plans, and a compliance officer regularly checks that the museums are properly protected.

In the case of a fire, Iziko can rely on these systems to buy some time to protect its collections.

She adds: “In the case of the fire that swept through the Constantia area a few years back, we took the precaution of moving our collections from the Groot Constantia Museum to an alternative site in the city centre, until such time that the risk was over. This meant dismantling antique furniture pieces, but it was an effort we were willing to undertake so as to minimise risks to the collections.”

What about other risks?

For A4’s Sara de Beer the lesson from the fire is that water damage should be a much bigger consideration in the future. 

“As the water from the hoses came streaming in we had to get things off the walls, and quickly,” she recalls.

She describes making a conveyor belt line with her colleagues to ferry artworks out of the gallery and into the boots of their cars, racing against time before the firefighters started hosing down the building.

The scene is reminiscent of photographs of volunteers and students in a similar line, undertaking the mammoth task of moving materials to a safer location, much of which has also faced water damage.

Volunteers help to save books from the Jagger Library on May 04, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan

The Beinecke library’s Schroeder says that fire is not as much of a concern as water damage is.

“We do not have the same forest or brush fire threat that Cape Town or parts of the American west have. We also have water-detection alarms when we have floods or major leaks, which for us poses more of a threat than fire does. The library was designed to protect the collections through fire suppression, security and water-detection systems, as well as the architecture.”

How can the architecture of a building protect it?

Arguably the Beinecke library’s most famous feature is its windows. They are made of translucent marble, only 3cm thick, that allow natural light to pour into the library while protecting its contents from the damaging effects of direct sunlight. 

But architecturally, the building’s biggest protection is that it is heavy on concrete and steel, minimising materials that are at risk to fire. 

It has this in common with South Africa’s most recently built museum, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. While they have also taken extensive fire precautions, architects Heatherwick Studios made use of the naturally non-flammable concrete structure of the silos.

As new design and construction techniques are employed to build new exhibition and archive spaces, they do become safer, but in the event of a damaging disaster it also falls to curators to consider the value of the works they’re dealing with, and the consequences of them being destroyed.

Are risks like these taken into consideration when curating the space?

For Omar the answer is yes. The Iziko museums are designed so that some pieces are easier to protect than others.

“Our view is that all museum collections have value as part of the cultural, historical and natural heritage of our country and our priority is to have systems in place to minimise damage in the event of a disaster. However, our collections are arranged by categories and this makes it possible to focus on specific priority areas in the event of a disaster, which includes fire.”

For Schroeder, it’s no. “Everything is treated the same as collection material can be stored, even temporarily anywhere in the building – in a reading room, for example. The stacks have additional security protocols but safety is the same throughout the building. Some spaces are more challenging due to the architecture – for example, the exhibit hall is more than 50 feet (15m) tall, and is a challenge to protect.”

Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

The recently built Louvre Abu Dhabi houses a collection of artefacts from all over the world, and unlike more traditional museums, curator Jean-François Charnier has placed them in chronological order instead of separating them by geography.

But does keeping all the oldest pieces of art in one space pose a greater risk in the event of a disaster? Or is age not necessarily the factor that makes a rare artefact precious?

It’s definitely not price, says A4’s De Beer. And when faced with the threat of fire, they were conscious of choosing to save items based on factors other than value.

“The trouble is creating a direct link between the price at sale, and therefore the insurance value of the artwork, and the intrinsic value or personally perceived value of the artwork. For example, we found ourselves wanting to save works by Julian Motau because he was such an important shooting star in the South African arts ecology; he had so little time, and is under-appreciated. His value is not reflected in a system that accords value solely through price,” adds De Beer.

The difficult decision of what to prioritise also becomes relevant in the process of digitisation – something which may be the only saviour of many of the pieces from Jagger Reading Room.

Since Brazil’s 200-year-old Museu Nacional burned down in 2018, three-dimensional renderings of some artefacts are the only version we have of them. A 3D modelling expert, Jorge Lopes dos Santos, told Forbes that the museum had “literally hundreds of scans of several important artefacts of the collection, including fossils, Egyptian mummies, the Luzia skull and others, and Greek and Roman artefacts”.

While no representation can come close to the real thing, these experiences can force institutions to begin the complicated process of asking themselves the difficult questions about evaluating an artefact or artwork’s value.

The answer to the question of what something is worth to you is personal and subjective, and maybe has to start with the question of what it would mean to lose it. DM/ML

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  • Thank you Devaksha for saying what was needed to be said. At a university which has staff in engineering and architecture and trains new engineers I was appalled that this building was inadequately protected. Frank van der Velde Pr Eng

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