Agents of Deterioration: Fire



Today’s agent of deterioration is a HOT ONE, that’s for sure! The agent that can crumble your world with a single match. We’re talking Fire!


Fire prevention is a top priority in museums and well… everywhere else too because not only can it destroy your collection and you building, it can also take lives. So this is an agent that we have to take very seriously to ensure all precautions are in place. Even the smallest little spark can cause a fire so you have to be super careful and super aware.


Let’s talk about the conditions needed to make a fire.


In order to make fire you need three things: oxygen, a fuel source and an ignition source. Without any one of these, you will not get fire. This is also how you would put out a fire.


There are different stages of fire: the pre-flashover stage, the flashover stage and the post-flashover stage.


The pre-flashover stage is when the fire is still small and can be easily extinguished. If it isn’t under control within a few minutes, we move on to the flashover stage. This is when things start to heat up- literally. The heat gets rather intense, and then other combustible things in the room start to catch fire, which will then lead to a fully fledged fire- the post-flashover stage. This is a fully developed fire where everything that can catch fire, has caught fire. This can result is major or total loss of collections, as well as put the building itself at risk.


This can all move super quickly, which is why it’s important to catch the fire as early as possible to make sure it doesn’t spread and cause more damage than it already has.


Now let’s look at what can cause a fire in a museum or artefact storage area:


  • Outdoor sources like lightning and bush fires if the museum is near a lot of vegetation.

  • Electrical fire risk with wiring or malfunctioning HVAC systems.

  • Use of open flames at an event (which by god I hope are all banned in museums by now).

  • Gas leaks

  • Construction or renovation activities.

  • Improper storage of flammable chemicals.

  • There’s also the super horrible act of arson that needs to be considered.

Most museums and historic monuments are equipped with extensive fire safety and prevention plans. Fire suppression systems like sprinklers are also important for catching and beating fires before they get out of hand. But, as we’ve seen in the last few years… we aren’t always as prepared as we think we may be. A lot of historic places are made up of highly combustible materials like old dry wood- we all saw what happened to Notre Dame.


Now let’s talk about the effect of fire on cultural heritage objects and museum collections. We all know the ultimate damage- being burnt to a total crisp, but it’s not always the same fate for all materials.


Objects made from organic materials like paper, textiles and wood are the most susceptible, especially when dry. Apart from those, you wouldn’t really expect a giant stone sculpture or a piece of pottery to suddenly catch on fire. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be damaged. They can become brittle, crack or even shatter. Glazes could melt on potter and since we’re talking about melting- let’s not even get in to what can happen to metal objects! Warp city, my friends and if it’s bad enough, complete melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.


Of course if something comes into contact with fire, soot and smoke damage can also occur. Soot covers the surface with a black powdery film that can obscure the readability of an object and can get rubbed further into porous objects when they’re being handled post fire. Soot can get oily so you have to remove it as soon as possible because it gets harder to clean as time goes on.


Some museums also have some very flammable objects in their collections like cellulose nitrate films and natural history collections that are stored in alcohol. I’m sure you’ve heard of old film reels being combustible and sometimes causing fires of their own. If there is a fire in the building and it reaches delicate collections like these… think explosions. *does explosion* You can’t really avoid this though because it’s your collection for goodness sakes!


So, how do we reduce our risk for fire and the subsequent damage? Lots of ways! For starters, developing a fire protection plan that includes building safety, employee training and upgrading fire suppression system would be good. Fire safety policies should be known by everyone in the building and regularly practiced so we all know what to do in the event of an emergency. Use non-combustible or fire resistant materials, use fire doors, and keep flammable dangerous things away from combustible delicate things. And always have smoke detectors. I could go on but essentially it involves a lot of risk assessment, building maintenance and forethought.


Different countries and museums will have different fire regulations, so it’s always a good idea to look in to those when making your own fire protection plan. Every place has different risks that need to be assessed. There are also a bunch of different fire suppression systems like fire extinguishers, water sprinklers, gas suppression where a combination inert gases are released to suppress the oxygen in the room to extinguish the fire (remember the triangle! No oxygen = no fire). They all have their pros and cons, so it’s really up to the discretion of the building manager and collections team.


One quick thing I will say about them though, is that a lot of thought and planning has to be done when installing a sprinkler system because if it goes off, it’ll soak your collection and water is another agent of deterioration, which we’ll talk about next time!


So there you have it friends, another agent of deterioration for the books. This is by far the scariest one (for our own lives, anyways) and I promise the rest will be less life threatening, and much cooler to handle.


Looking to find out more?


Canadian Conservation Institute- Agents of Deterioration: Fire by Deborah Stewart

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