Around midday on April 15, 1958, New York’s Museum of Modern Art erupted in flames. The three-alarm fire spread rapidly, threatening the world’s pre-eminent collection of 20th-century paintings and leaving nearly 200 people stranded on the building’s roof.
In the end, firefighters controlled the blaze and — thanks to heroic efforts by museum staff — the collection was largely unscathed. Staffers carried a group of major Georges Seurat paintings, including his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” on a rare loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, to safety in an adjacent building. Nonetheless, one of Claude Monet’s largest “Water Lilies” paintings was destroyed and several other works severely damaged.
In the days since a horrific fire engulfed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, the world has reacted with outrage and horror at the gutting of the largest treasure house of natural history in Latin America. Brazilians have been quick to blame the devastation on government mismanagement, drastic budget cuts and a general neglect of the country’s cultural heritage.
Yet as the 1958 MoMA conflagration reminds us, fires and other natural hazards have long posed as much a threat to leading museums in the United States and Europe as they have to their less wealthy counterparts in other parts of the world. In the United States, the long history of fires goes back to the early years of museum-building — and continues to present day.
In 1865, the American Museum — a popular New York City collection of historic artifacts, taxidermied animals and live animals owned by showman P.T. Barnum — caught fire and burned down so quickly that two whales were boiled alive in their tanks. In June, a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Museum of History in Aberdeen, Washington, which contained thousands of local artifacts.
Already in the early 20th century, there was widespread demand for “fireproof” museum buildings, but sprinkler systems can pose risks of their own. In the MoMA fire, some of the damage was caused by water from the building’s own firefighting standpipes. (Paradoxically, the MoMA fire was caused by workers trying to install a better air-conditioning system, another step aimed at protecting the art.)
Today there is also the growing menace of climate change. In recent years, art capitals ranging from Miami to Los Angeles have faced hurricanes, floods and wildfires, with art museums often perilously close to the front lines.
Consider the Netherlands. The country has long been known for state-of-the-art sea barriers and flood-fighting expertise. But in Rotterdam, where 90 percent of the city is below sea level, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which houses a world-renowned collection of Old Masters and modern European art, has faced five floods in the past 14 years that have threatened the collection.
During a flood in 2013, torrential rain short-circuited the water pumps in the Boijmans’ art storage area and water began streaming in. Sjarel Ex, the museum’s director, faced a terrible decision: Emergency workers could divert the water away from the rooms with the paintings. But this would likely sacrifice the museum’s collection of historic books.
At the last minute, museum staff were able to use enormous extension cords to reconnect the pumps and save the collection. But the near-calamity was galvanizing. Now, the museum is building a $70 million-plus, aboveground art “depot” by Dutch architectural firm MVRDV to store 145,000 museum works in a totally floodproof environment. (Shaped like a giant reflective sugar bowl, it will be open to the public.)
For the most deep-pocketed museums, special measures can help stave off the worst threats. The Getty Center in Los Angeles sits on a hilltop in an area of frequent earthquakes and wildfires. But with an endowment of nearly $7 billion, it has been able to invest extensively in protective technologies. Its billion-dollar campus features thick walls of fire-resistant travertine stone, a million-gallon water tank and a system of irrigation pipes that can soak the perimeter if needed. It has also developed display cases that isolate artworks from seismic activity.
Today the Getty is considered one of the safer places for art in Los Angeles. When a devastating fire seared the surrounding hillsides last winter, firefighters used the Getty as a base for monitoring the area.
Other museums are starting to take note. Completed in 2015, the new, $422 million Whitney Museum of American Art, which is close to the Hudson River, has been called one of the most flood-proof buildings in New York.
Most museum buildings, however, predate recent innovations, and, in the face of growing operating expenses and shrinking budgets, few are prepared to allocate scarce resources for disaster preparation. As Andrew Wilson, a museum adviser and former head of the Smithsonian Institution’s fire protection program, has observed, “There exists a cavalier attitude in this country that ‘fire won’t happen to me.’ “
As we witness the Brazil tragedy, it may be all too easy to conclude that this is a poor-country problem. It’s not. It is a warning for all of us.
Until we begin to address the critical man-made and environmental threats to our own national treasures, we, too, are in danger of watching hundreds of years of art and history go up in smoke.
Hugh Eakin is a 2018-2019 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. He wrote this for The Washington Post.