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How safe are our museums?

Wednesday September 26 2018

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It is often said, in the culture world that ''an old man dying, is like a library burning.'' I am sure they mean an old woman as well.

The National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro was recently destroyed in an overnight fire.

To every museum professional the world over, losing a whole museum to fire is like a nightmare.

Rebuilding a museum’s collection is literally a work of resurrection, and many artefacts and relics from history will be destroyed or lost altogether.

Despite efforts to minimize the risk to collections, natural and human-error disasters still destroy collections in museums every so often.

The International Committee for Museum Security of the International Council of Museums is holding its annual conference and workshop in Nairobi this week.

It is a good time to discuss security in museums after the tragic events in Brazil in which millions of irreplaceable artefacts "perished".

According to expert discussions at the conference, the artefacts in African museums are more likely to suffer losses from acts of human error, theft or terrorism, rather than natural disasters, as our geographical typology is not prone to natural disasters like floods, earthquakes and tsunamis.


Many institutions do not service or even test their firefighting equipment regularly.

Electrical and water systems are not well maintained, and many institutions lack automatic systems for switching off power in the event of a fire, despite have an automated power backup in case of a blackout.

Discussions revealed that institutions that do not have an evacuation plan can suffer great human loss in a disaster.

A presentation by the head of security at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum revealed some of the greatest gaps museums in Africa face, aside from awareness.

V & A Museum has cameras that can identify the different museum audiences as they visit the museum.

A person in the control room can see which gallery has children and people with disabilities at any one time.

Consequently, helping the most vulnerable population is prioritised in times of emergency and casualties and unnecessary stampedes, which sometimes cause more deaths than the direct danger posed by fire or flood, can be reduced.


Another important aspect that will challenge the response of Kenya to emergencies is authoritarian governments and chains of command.

A disaster response requires a team leader from whom all members take instructions. They are also the communication focal points when external services are required.

In the case of an institution like a museum, such a person would be the point of contact for the police, fire brigade and ambulances.

The government’s poor response to the Westgate terror attack is still fresh in Kenyans’ minds. The government lacked a clear leader in the situation and the various agencies that responded to the emergency were taking instructions from different lines of command.

This can and does result in a mess worse than the emergency for which a response was being sought.


In Kenya, what is obvious still needs to be emphasised, since we are poor at learning from past mistakes.

Fire trucks must have water, otherwise it is pointless dispatching them to an emergency situation.

The citizens must also be sensitised that emergency vehicles must be given access by all motorists.

How can Kenyans give way to politicians on the road, but some have the nerve to ask if an ambulance is occupied or is just avoiding traffic?

And since the most important part of a disaster plan is prevention, buildings must have emergency exits that are accessible at all times.

Institutions need insurance against replaceable items such as buildings, equipment and other movable assets.

When disaster strikes, salvage what you can, starting with human life by following evacuation plans that must be agreed on, way before any emergency.

In the case of a museum, the real impact of a disaster cannot be valued because the most valuable items after human life are our artefacts.

At the National Museums of Kenya, for example, the human origins collection is irreplaceable and losing it would constitute a loss for humanity, not just for the institution or the country.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa