Notre Dame fire a warning bell for Europe’s monuments

Notre Dame fire a warning bell for Europe’s monuments

Notre Dame fire a warning bell for Europe’s monuments

It's a thin line where the patina of age on Europe's countless monuments gives way to the onset of neglect. Like with so many loved ones, all is assumed to be fine, until suddenly it's not.

In the wake of the fire last week that gutted Notre Dame, a jewel of France, questions are being raised about the state of thousands of other cathedrals, palaces and village spires that have turned France - as well as Italy, Britain and Spain - into open air museums of Western civilization.

If even an iconic building like Notre Dame could not be protected from devastation, if such a potent symbol of France had to scramble for maintenance funds, that lays bare a culture of apathy that can undermine a shared history as well as the multibillion-dollar tourism industry upon which much of Europe depends.

"We are so used to our outstanding cultural heritage in Europe that we tend to forget that it needs constant care and attention," Tibor Navracsics, the European Union's top culture official, said.

Some say the wake-up call, not just for Europe but the whole world, rang in Paris.

Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovicis, head of the Europa Nostra heritage foundation, "as if Notre Dame decided to set itself on fire to ring the alarm bell. As if she wanted to sacrifice herself for the cause."

Devastating fires have robbed mankind of its knowledge, art and treasures since the famed library of Alexandria in northern Egypt burned down in ancient times. Prior to Notre Dame, the last global warning came when Brazil's Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most important cultural institutions in all of South America, burned down in September.

"Unfortunately, the fire in Notre Dame is just one of many examples," said Navracsics.

Notre Dame fire a warning bell for Europe’s monumentsExperts look at the near-endless list of fires at historical sites in Europe and wonder why officials so often don't learn before it's too late. Data on such fires is limited, because monuments are so varied. Some can be accidents, others arson.

"There are no exact statistics," said Didier Rykner of France's La Tribune de l'Art, but added that France sees "several fires every year in historic buildings, which is already way too much."

A 2015 study by the German engineering giant Siemens showed that Scotland alone had about 10 damaging fires a year, while England lost at least a dozen listed buildings a year. Germany has seen 70 such buildings destroyed since 2000.

"Every year, there's lightning or something else that destroys a tower or a roof," Juan Antonio Herraez, who is in charge of preventive conservation at Spain's Cultural Heritage institute, said.

In 1985, the tower of Luxembourg's main cathedral caught fire and burned down. In 2004, a fire in the Duchess Anna Amalia library in Weimar, Germany, caused an estimated 80 million euros in damage. In Italy, the historic La Fenice opera house in Venice was destroyed by fire in 1996, and a year later, that happened at Turin's Sindone Chapel of the Holy Shroud.

And all too often, fires happen during restoration work.

The Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Building was gutted by fire last year for the second time in four years as it neared the end of a multimillion-pound (dollar) restoration project.

In Spain, the Gran Teatre del Liceu - Barcelona's opera house - was destroyed almost entirely in 1994 by a fire caused by spark that fell on a curtain during routine repair works.

Experts say what's lacking is the constant attention and regular maintenance that could help avoid the need for major restoration work, but that costs money. The problem has been exacerbated by the austerity budgets many European nations adopted after the 2008 financial crisis and during Europe's subsequent yearlong debt crisis.

After austerity cuts, Rykner said, "you need some drastic restorations that either you don't do, or you do them badly or cheaply. And it can lead to fires."

Herraez wants officials to shift their focus to prevention instead of only reacting to building disasters.

Experts: Protect Turkey’s historical artifacts

In the wake of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, experts are calling on the Turkish government to take stronger measures to protect the country’s bonanza of historical buildings.

Notre Dame fire a warning bell for Europe’s monuments

Experts say Turkish ministries need to enforce regulations to prevent fire and other catastrophes at historical structures.

Ulaş Çınar, an academic at Istanbul Yeni Yüzyıl University, said the government needs to take steps to inspect and improve the safety of historical structures.

“According to the new regulations, a system against fire should exist in these structures. They are historical artifacts [yet] you are not given permission to set up a fire system there. Fire may also occur in an adjacent building and spread out to a historical building. Therefore there should be a free space around the historical buildings, too,” Çınar said.

Protecting people inside and around historical buildings, such as Hagia Sophia or Sultanahmet Mosque, should take priority, said academic Tolga Barışık.

“For example, there are many business places and houses around the Hagia Sophia. A fire in this historical structure may spread out these places. We need to take measures before a fire occurs. It should be examined where the fire may occur,” he says.