Colonel Cândido Rondon wasn’t yet 25 years old when, in 1890, the newly created Brazilian republic asked him to lead its Strategic Telegraph Commission—a project intended to run a telegraph line through the country’s Amazon interior and in the process make contact with the indigenous tribes living in its recesses. Rondon himself was a caboclo, a man of mixed Indian and Spanish blood who, orphaned at age 2, hailed from a rural village far from the influence of Rio de Janeiro.

Rondon’s corps was supposed to include up to 150 men but was rarely at capacity; assignment to his unit was so unpopular that the Brazilian Army started detailing prisoners to his missions. It wasn’t just the hardships—disease, rapids, unfriendly animals—that concerned the men, but also Rondon’s imposition of a baffling additional mandate to be followed at all times and in all circumstances: Do no violence to any Indian for any reason. Historian Candice Millard relates that Rondon “valued the lives of the Amazonian Indians above his own life—or the lives of his men. Surely there was not a soldier in the Rondon Commission who could not recite by heart his colonel’s now famous command: ‘Die if you must, but never kill.’ ” He would enter the jungle with 81 men and come back with 30, or go in with 100 men and return with 55. The fact that he stayed alive himself was a cause for awe.

After a quarter-century, Rondon had made some limited progress. He knew the Amazon better than anyone alive. He had built up a communication system with remote interior telegraph stations. And on his returns to Rio, he didn’t come back emptyhanded: He bore gifts—evidence of his slowly improving relationships with the Amazon’s panoply of inhabitants. Gifts were Rondon’s chief diplomatic tool; he always carried presents for each tribe and, when times were good, received something significant in return—musical instruments, weapons, food, anything thought to be of value. On one journey he brought along an anthropologist skilled in capturing sound and so was able to return with some of the first recordings ever made of indigenous music.

A chunk of Rondon’s collection, evidence of first contact, went to the kind of institution where such artifacts—irreplaceable cultural treasures—typically go: the national museum. In this case, the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, the one that recently burned down.

The fire on the night of September 2 destroyed not only the museum’s indigenous Brazilian ethnology collection but also nearly everything else—an estimated 90 percent of the museum’s 20 million items. The oldest human skeleton found in the Americas. Animal fossils, including dinosaurs. The world’s largest collection of lace bugs. Whole lifespans of work by modern-day scientists. As the cinders are sifted, it will be easier to catalogue what has remained than what has been lost. For now, the chief surviving artifact is one of the world’s largest meteorites, which the New York Times, with dark irony, says has “been through worse.” Just another hazard of falling to Earth.

Exhibit of the skull of ‘Luzia,’ presumably lost in the fire of the Museu Nacional
Exhibit of a replica of ‘Luzia,’ the oldest human skull found in the Americas. The exhibit and original remains of Luzia were presumably destroyed in the Museu Nacional fire. Dornicke / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scholars, curators, scientists, and culture-lovers have been searching for metaphors appropriate to this moment of collective lament. One politician called the fire a “lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” An American scholar compared it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York burning to the ground. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution kept it simple: The fire was a “terrible tragedy.” Wikipedia started a campaign soliciting photos of artifacts shot by visitors in the past—a fine idea, although of course even the most successful such crowdsourcing effort could only hope to help us comprehend more fully the immensity of the loss.

Then there is the question that anyone outside Brazil reading about the fire or looking at pictures of it must consider: Could something similar happen here?

Museum fires are much more common in the United States than you might think. According to the National Fire Protection Association, from 2012 to 2016, local fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 620 structure fires in or at libraries, museums, courthouses, or other public or government properties. There are fires about “once a week” at museums and art galleries, according to Andrew Wilson, a fire-protection engineer who was formerly the Smithsonian’s top fire-safety official and is now a consultant. If you broaden the focus to include all of the nation’s 35,000 museums and historic properties—often churches in poor condition—the number is much higher. In fact, hours before the Brazil fire, Fred and Melinda Kent of Natchez, Mississippi, received the bad news that the historic 1903 club they had recently purchased and renovated as a museum had caught on fire and sustained a 40-50 percent loss. They were due to reopen the building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the following week. The very next day, in Gulfport, Florida, the Gulfport History Museum, housed in a 20th-century Methodist church, caught fire, reportedly the unintentional result of a homeless man’s actions. That fire, fortunately, left most of the little museum’s collection unharmed.

A list of American cultural institutions that have suffered devastating fires would be very long and would include many big names, like the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History. The Library of Congress burned repeatedly—in 1814 thanks to the British, and then again in 1825 and most disastrously in 1851—before moving into a building designed with fire safety in mind. The nearby Smithsonian castle on the National Mall caught fire in January 1865 when workers installing a temporary stove to warm an art gallery connected the stovepipe not to a ventilation shaft but to an enclosed wall. Destroyed in that fire were the personal effects of James Smithson—the mysterious English donor whose bequest made the museum possible—and most of the paintings of John Mix Stanley, an artist-explorer known for his portraits of Native American leaders. Not unlike the Museu Nacional, what the Smithsonian lost were some of the last remembrances of a vanishing people. Stanley had presciently written of his worry that “a few generations hence our descendants will have nothing except . . . memorials, to remind them of the . . . existence of a race.” Smithsonian secretary Joseph Henry’s daughter, Mary, described the fire in her diary:

Truly it was a grand sight as well as a sad one the flames bursting from the windows of the towers rose high above them curling round the ornamental stone work through the archs and trefoils as if in full appreciation of their symatry, a beautiful fiend tasting to the utmost the pleasure of destruction.

Six months later, the most popular and controversial museum in the United States burned to the ground. P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York held all sorts of curiosities, including relics from the American Revolution and two living whales (which unfortunately were not rescued and boiled alive in their tanks). When Barnum’s resurrected museum, built at another location, also burst into flames in 1868, he gave up on bricks and mortar and took his act on the road.

The 1865 burning of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.
The 1865 burning of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Corbis / Getty

Fire-protection engineers like Wilson work with architects, landscapers, and curators to devise and implement strategies for preventing fires from starting and minimizing damage when they do. The design of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for example, takes into account the museum’s wildfire-susceptible location. While nearby residents were evacuated in the latest bout of California flames in 2017, a Getty staff member told the press that the safest location for the artwork was “right here.” The complex has a sophisticated air-filtration system that can push air out and also reverse the flow. The landscaping keeps the driest plants on the outskirts and those with the highest water content closest to the building. And the Getty has a million-gallon water tank at the ready. All this comes at a cost: The Getty Center took more than a dozen years to build, to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Of course, most cultural institutions don’t have access to that kind of money. It’s no secret that the Museu Nacional was perilously short on funds, its budget a casualty of Brazil’s economic and political woes. And in the United States, once you look past the top tiers of well-funded cultural institutions, you’ll find that many midsize and small museums are in historic houses and churches likely to have specific fire-safety concerns. Think of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, which hosts some 30,000 visitors annually. Or of Mother Bethel AME in Philadelphia, established in 1794—home to an active congregation and the site of a museum commemorating its history as the mother church of the oldest African-American denomination. How can institutions at that scale, with limited budgets and many other pressing concerns, take proper fire-safety precautions?

Wilson’s advice begins with awareness that “no institution is immune from fire” and with a basic understanding of how fires start and spread—and the suggestion that each institution develop a “fire plan.”

You may have learned in childhood that there are three elements needed for a fire: oxygen, a fuel source, and an ignition source. Not much can be done about oxygen, leaving engineers like Wilson two prongs of attack: to limit and monitor fuel sources and to extinguish ignition sources. For example, the Smithsonian does not permit exhibits to be built of regular, old-fashioned wood; it has to be fire-retardant treated wood. (Most building materials today come in fire-retardant varieties.) Engineers recommend that museums completely prohibit smoking and limit the number of electrical appliances like toasters, stoves, space heaters, hot plates, and coffeemakers on the premises. Basic maintenance and orderliness has to be kept, including regular checks and corrections to heating and air-conditioning systems and electrical systems. According to Wilson, one leading cause of fires at museums is renovation-related welding, cutting, and burning. To minimize vulnerability, many institutions need rules about what kinds of “hot work” can take place in the building and under what type of supervision.

Creating and enforcing such rules can go a long way to preventing fires. But in addition to fire-prevention plans, museums need fire-suppression systems—that is, sprinklers. “If one were to examine every cultural property lost to a fire,” Wilson writes, “the only factor they would share in common would be lack of an automatic fire suppression system.” This was the case in the Museu Nacional: There was no sprinkler system and the hydrants outside the building were dry. The last time one of the world’s major national museums was lost to fire—when the Natural History Museum in New Delhi burned totally in 2016—faulty sprinklers were also involved.

Museum sprinklers don’t work the way they do in movies. You can picture the scene: Thomas Crown has thrown tear gas into the gallery and protective walls are closing in to cover the hanging art. Then the sprinklers come on—all of them—showering the statues and everything not yet covered. As wonderful a device as this is in The Thomas Crown Affair, it’s not how sprinklers in museums actually work. In real life, each individual sprinkler head has its own seal, which only breaks when heat reaches a certain level. Smoke has nothing to do with it. So when sprinklers activate, the water is very localized—making them more effective and reducing water damage to the rest of the museum. (It’s also how engineers convince nervous curators that sprinklers are safe to install in their galleries.)

Beyond these basics, the details of fire prevention and suppression necessarily vary from institution to institution. But there are not many people who concern themselves with fire protection at cultural properties. According to Wilson, in the United States there are eight fire-protection engineers who work full-time for museums; seven of them work for the Smithsonian and the eighth is at the National Gallery of Art. Otherwise, institutions hire consultants from engineering firms or cross their fingers for a speedy response from the local fire department.

There are fewer than 10 schools in the United States that offer a master’s degree in fire-protection engineering—and fewer still that offer an undergraduate degree. One undergraduate program is at the University of Maryland. It fluctuates between 200 and 250 students (including grad students); once they have their degrees they’re gobbled up by engineering firms and large corporations looking to secure their properties. Department chair Jim Milke says that “the job market’s been overwhelming.” The primary problem for his department’s graduates isn’t finding a job but choosing from among the offers available to them. And while few of them go on to work directly for the country’s tens of thousands of cultural institutions, some do go on to work for engineering-consulting firms that specialize in the needs of that sector.

The shell of Brazil’s Museu Nacional the day after the fire.
The shell of Brazil’s Museu Nacional the day after the fire. Buda Mendes / Getty

After the fire in Brazil, protesters took to the streets to mourn and expose the government’s mishandling and mismanagement of its treasures—the artifacts bought with the lives of Rondon’s men and the life’s work of countless others. Brazilians have voiced shame and disappointment, disgust and distrust in their leaders.

For sympathetic and concerned Americans there are a few things that might be done to reduce the risks of destructive fires at our own cultural institutions. One place to start is better information-gathering—attempting to determine comprehensively the risk at U.S. museums and what could be done to shore up fire protection. There appears to be no good clearinghouse of information about fire preparedness at American cultural institutions. Christopher Provan, who chairs the American Alliance of Museums’s Security Professional Network, says that “although museums need to comply with their specific states’ regulations, there is still a large variance in fire prevention from museum to museum.” He adds, “Everyone is concerned about fire but it is often an ‘it can’t happen here’ mentality.” An assessment or survey—perhaps funded by the government, perhaps by foundations—of fire-protection measures at cultural institutions would go far to make the problem much less abstract and could lead to museum staff and friends waking up to the real risks to their institutions. Even the act of participating in such a survey would nudge organizations to think about their fire-prevention and -suppression efforts. As a side benefit, such a survey could be broadened slightly to provide information on other kinds of risk preparedness, like readiness for non-fire disasters and security measures in place for shootings or terrorism. It could also lead institutions to improved sharing of best practices and give donors a sense of the needs and opportunities.

Short of such a national reckoning, private citizens can also help. Go ahead and ask your favorite cultural institutions what their fire-prevention plans are and specifically about the presence of fire-suppression systems. Are these systems properly maintained? Showing staff that you care could elevate the issue in the museum’s culture. When you see hallways used for storage or general uncleanliness, don’t just go home and write a negative review on TripAdvisor—tell a staff member, point out the fire hazard, give the staff an additional incentive (even if it’s just your esteem) to fix the problem. Such Tocquevillean, participatory tactics are well suited to the local nature of the problem—and a fittingly American way of taking action to protect our cultural heritage.