British Columbia

A fire destroyed Brazil's National Museum. How safe is the Royal B.C. Museum?

Canadian museums will need to evaluate their emergency and fire preparedness in the wake of a devastating fire that gutted Brazil's National Museum, says the head of B.C.'s natural and human history museum.

'It's a disaster of absolutely monumental portions,' says head of B.C.'s natural and human history museum

The National Museum of Brazil housed several landmark collections, including Egyptian artifacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Canadian museums will need to evaluate their emergency preparedness in the wake of a devastating fire that gutted Brazil's National Museum, says the head of B.C.'s natural history museum.

Jack Lohman, chief executive of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, says B.C. has some of the best safety measures in place among the several museums he previously oversaw in cities such as Cape Town and London. 

But concern remains for smaller museums across the country, which may be more vulnerable, says Lohman, who is also vice-president of the Canadian Museums Association.

"This is something that we're going to have look at very seriously," Lohman told Gloria Macarenko, host of CBC's On The Coast

"There are plenty of examples across the world of these types of historic buildings going up in flames and people really having to think of a strategy of where you go from there."

Fire crews and museum officials are still assessing the extent of the damage to the museum's collection. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

'Monumental' disaster

The National Museum held the largest collection of historical and scientific artifacts in Latin America. 

It's unclear how many of its 20 million items have been destroyed. A museum official estimated that perhaps 10 per cent of the collection survived. 

"It's a disaster of absolutely monumental proportions," said Lohman, who's fluent in Portuguese and had been to the museum several times, including a recent visit to its archives. 

Upon learning of the fire Sunday evening, Lohman said the Royal B.C. Museum quickly reached out to consular officials in Rio de Janeiro to offer assistance. 

"As museum directors, we have to think, 'what next? And how are we going to pick up the pieces?'" he said.

Lohman, left, joined the Royal B.C. Museum in 2012. (Mik McArthur/CBC)

Preparing for disaster

Critics say the accident could have been prevented, pointing to the museum's chronic underfunding and eroding infrastructure. 

The 200-year-old museum most notably lacked sprinklers. Hydrants closest to the museum also didn't work, forcing fire crews to gather water from a nearby lake.

Lohman says the situation is markedly different at the Royal B.C. Museum, which was founded in 1886 and houses more than 7 million items.

"We have concrete floors. We have sprinklers just about everywhere. We have fire hydrants. We have regular training," he said. 

"There's a strong emphasis on emergency drills with 24-hour security."

Besides reviewing their fire polices, museums should be sending duplicates of their specimens to other institutions to avoid losing crucial scientific knowledge, Lohman said. 

"You can't bring collections back unfortunately," he said. "That's the really significant lesson here."

With files from CBC's On The Coast

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