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India should learn from Paris fire incident: Global heritage expert

India should learn from Paris fire incident: Global heritage expert
Vinod Daniel, an India-born Australian and top museum specialist, also said that along with the central-level exercise, a state-level fire safety auditing should also be done as a large portion of India's cultural and architectural wealth are locally governed. Image Credit: ANI

The devastating blaze at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris should serve as a "wake-up call" for India, a global heritage expert said Wednesday and suggested that the new government should conduct a "national-level fire audit" of museums and other cultural landmarks within 12 months in office. Vinod Daniel, an India-born Australian and top museum specialist, also said that along with the central-level exercise, a state-level fire safety auditing should also be done as a large portion of India's cultural and architectural wealth are locally governed.

The iconic cathedral, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most celebrated monuments globally. On Monday, days ahead of the World Heritage Day (April 18), an inferno ripped through the over 850-year-old iconic Paris landmark destroying a large part of its roof and causing its central spire to collapse, leaving the world stunned.

Daniel, 57, who is a board member of the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM), says while Indians have reacted very emotionally to the incident, which is important, but as a nation, India should take valuable lessons out of this loss and "assess its own fire safety and risk management capabilities". "It should have been taken note of immediately but since elections are underway, we will have to wait for the new government. But, the next government, should conduct a national-level fire safety audit of museums and other cultural and architectural landmarks within the first 12 months of its office," Daniel told PTI in an interview.

The global museum expert said besides the UNESCO heritage sites, many old and iconic temples and other places of worship spread across the country are listed under state archaeology departments and therefore, state-level audits should be done in consonance with the national exercise. Daniel had last December cautioned that a majority of museums and cultural repositories in India were at risk of suffering "grave damage" in the event of a major fire, and suggested that a disaster management plan be properly implemented by these institutions.

Daniel praised France's response to the colossal fire that gutted one of its most monumental landmarks that have been celebrated in books, magazine and films. Notre-Dame de Paris, meaning 'Our Lady of Paris', is a medieval Catholic cathedral consecrated to the Virgin Mary and considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.

The famed gargoyles of the cathedral watching over the streets of Paris are some of the most enduring images of this landmark, celebrated in Victor Hugo's immortal classic 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', which was adapted into a film in 1939. Daniel praised the French response to the colossal fire and said the firefighters trained in handling heritage objects and environment "mitigated the damage".

President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame within five years. France's cathedrals have prepared to ring their bells on Wednesday to mark 48 hours since the devastating blaze began. The ICOM board member recalled the fire last year at the National Museum in Brazil and the one which gutted the National Museum of Natural History in Delhi in 2016, saying the Notre Dame fire should now serve as a "wake-up call for India".

The Sydney-based expert said fire globally is the "number one threat" for any such building, roughly "one in 3,000 buildings" run that risk. Also, at present, a majority of museums, old libraries and cultural repositories do not have a proper disaster management plan in place and hence, stand at risk of suffering grave damage in case of a major fire, as it happened in Brazil, Daniel said.

"And, that is why India needs to do the central-level and state-level audits, and then a budget should be allocated to ensure a timeline-based comprehensive risk management plan. And, these audits need to be done periodically," he said. "We need to have comprehensive risk management guidelines and India needs to revisit its risk management strategy if we want to protect our heritage from such incidents," the Sydney-based expert said.

However, some of the museums, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), National Museum in Delhi and the Bihar Museum in Patna do have a management policy and a roadmap to deal with such incidents, he said. Daniel, also chairman of AusHeritage, a non-profit cultural heritage network in Australia, said the first 24 hours after a disaster, be it fire or flood, is the "critical period for response".

He also suggested that besides having a good plan for safekeeping, museums should invest in the documentation of artefacts and training of staff for proper handling of exhibits in the wake of a disaster. "The Notre-Dame is extensively documented, be its old drawings, paintings, photographs, videos, and they will prove valuable in the restoration process," he said.

Daniel lamented that the incident will also leave a "bit of an emotional scar" for the people of Paris and visitors. "I visit Paris every six months and stay very near to the cathedral. I take morning walks, and next time when I go there, it would be sad to see the fire-ravaged landmark," he said.

The cathedral is part of the World Heritage site officially known as "Paris, Banks of the Seine", inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1991.

(With inputs from agencies.)

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