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The Lucky Country - reflecting on the importance of heritage


The Museum of Fire, August 2023
The Museum of Fire, August 2023

When it comes to operating a museum about firefighting, it may seem ironic that one of the greatest threats to a museum, is fire, or it may be the perfect opportunity to practice what we preach when it comes to fire safety.


You may have noticed a few planned and sudden un-planned closures for the Museum this year and at the heart of all these closures has been our desire to ensure the Museum is protected when it comes to fire safety and the integrity of the building.


Five years ago, on 2 September 2018, a fire gripped the National Museum of Brazil. Though exact figures are unknown over 92% of the Museum’s collection was destroyed in the fire. The Museum was the largest natural history museum in Latin America and this tragedy serves as a timely reminder of how vulnerable museums can be if not managed and protected correctly.


Firefighters were first alerted to the fire at 7:30pm and though they were quick to respond to the scene the two hydrants closest to the building failed to provide water, so it had to be pumped from a nearby lake. Within 30 minutes the fire was considered to be out of control and within an hour of the firefighters arriving at the scene witnessed the entire building engulphed in flames.


By 10pm the roof had collapsed, and museum staff rushed to join the firefighting efforts. Thankfully no one was severely injured.

The National Museum of Brazil, aftermath of the fire, 2018 [Source: the Sydney Morning Herald]
The National Museum of Brazil, aftermath of the fire, 2018 [Source: The Sydney Morning Herald]

The cause of the fire was deemed to be a short circuit on an air conditioner and with no internal fire sprinkler system the fire was able to spread rapidly through the building which had fallen into a state of disrepair in the years leading up to the fire owing to a lack of funding and mismanagement by the Brazilian Government.


Sadly, this tale from five years ago makes me think of the different ways a Museum can come “under fire". Throughout 2023 we’ve seen cultural organisations suffering the impact of war. In Sudan the National Museum faced scenes of vandalism and destruction when paramilitary forces entered the building.


The Museum’s Director, Dr Ghalia Gharelnabi (who had already fled to the Netherlands after artillery had hit her home), told journalists that the Museum’s staff were “in a state of shock” and fearful for what else was occurring.

The conflict in Sudan, the cultural treasures housed in the National Museum of Sudan are being destroyed [Source: The Canberra Times]
The conflict in Sudan, the cultural treasures housed in the National Museum of Sudan are being destroyed [Source: The Canberra Times]

Sudan’s National Museum has a collection of over 100,000 items that date back as far as 2,500 BC, making the collection one of the oldest in the world. The Museum’s staff had been forced to flee back on 15 April as fighting intensified however, a staff member who lived nearby had been checking on the Museum until they were recently forced to flee their home.


In Ukraine the last few months have witnessed the continuation of the Russian invasion with cultural organizations and historic townships targeted.


On 25 April the Kupiansk Local History Museum in the Kharkiv Oblast was hit by a Russian missile. The museum was severely damaged, ten people were injured and two were killed.


Less than two months later, on 6 July, Russia targeted the UNESCO listed, World Heritage Site, Lviv. Home to over 60 museums and representing over 800 years of history and architecture, the city was listed by UNESCO in 1998.

The attack came from the Black Sea with ten missiles launched. Ukrainian efforts stopped seven of the missiles but the three that made it past the Ukrainian defences significantly damaged the cities infrastructure and killed ten with a further 42 injured.

Kupiansk Local History Museum after being hit by a Russian strike on 25 April 2023 [Source: Kharkiv Oblast Emergency Services]
Kupiansk Local History Museum after being hit by a Russian strike on 25 April 2023 [Source: Kharkiv Oblast Emergency Services]

Just seventeen days later the historic centre of Odesa came into the firing line on 23 July when Russia launched an attack that killed two people and injured 19 others. On top of this, 25 architectural monuments were damaged including the city’s largest Orthodox cathedral. Just under a month later Odesa was targeted again with an attack on 14 August causing fire to spread throughout the city. While no one was killed 203 buildings were destroyed and damaged.

It is easy to feel that Museum’s and cultural organisations should be free from such destruction. Indeed, no individual should face war as part of their daily civilian life, but this is what faces those living in the many war and conflict zones around the world.


When reflecting on these stories you can only be thankful that we live in a country where we don’t wake up each day wondering if we’ll have a museum to go to. The best thing we can do is ensure we do our upmost each day to strive to make the museum into the best organisation it can be and I’m proud to say that is what our team does each and every day.

As I write this blog our team are working hard to prepare for the upcoming busy months of September and October and every individual has a part to play in continuing to grow the Museum into a worldclass facility that educates and preserves history while at the same time learning from other organisations round the world, both those considered to be industry leaders and those who sadly become victims of misadventure.


Afterall, we know that famous quote; “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".


Every day brings a new opportunity to learn and develop.


-Story by Belinda McMartin CEO


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