Managing fire safety in museums and stately homes

A fire in a museum, art gallery or stately home can lead to significant loss of cultural heritage. As well as the loss of unique or significant artifacts by fire, there can also be damage by water and by smoke. After a fire a cultural heritage institution is likely to remain closed for a long period, possibly lasting several years, while the building and its collections are restored. Given these serious consequences, it is important that museums, galleries and stately homes put control measures in place to ensure fire safety, to detect fires, and to respond quickly if a fire occurs.

Fundamental to fire prevention is a fire safety committee comprised of staff, management and expert advisors. The committee needs to be endorsed by the institution’s most senior executive manager. Responsibilities need to be assigned, and minutes taken of all meetings.

The fire safety committee should carry out a thorough fire risk assessment of the institution, establish priorities for the optimal preservation of a collection, and set measures in place in an institution to prevent potential fires, and to respond to them should they occur. Data relevant to cultural heritage institutions reveals that most fires are caused by intentional or unintentional human actions. In addition, arson is responsible for 45% fires in the interior public zone of a cultural heritage institution.

Causes of fires in cultural heritage institutions

Electrical failures are a major cause of fires, including faulty electrical panel boxes; old and defective, damaged and/or inadequate wiring (including wires chewed by rodents); and small apparatus failure (small cooking or heating devices, small boilers, etc). Cooking and food preparation is a potential fire risk; as well as smoking (whether authorised or unauthorised); and unsafe use of combustible products. Building systems such as the heating system can also malfunction.

Renovation work exposes cultural heritage institutions to considerable risk with areas of concern being chemical and flammable liquids, as well as open flame apparatus such as propane torches, welding equipment and other heat producing tools.

Temporary exhibitions with unprofessional electrical wiring can be a cause of fires; as can cookery demonstrations or open fires in re-enactments. Lightning strikes can cause electrical malfunctions. The possibility of arson may be higher than the average if the cultural institution has a controversial association – for instance, a stately home with links to slavery.

Other points to consider:

  • Having an active fire safety committee composed of staff, management and outside experts is one of the key elements in fire prevention.
  • Installation of a fire alarm system that is monitored continuously is essential, as well as an automatic fire suppression system.
  • Train staff in the use of portable fire extinguishers, renewed every three years.
  • Fire alarms should be tested regularly.
  • Electrical system should be inspected every 10 years.
  • Monthly fire safety inspections should be conducted.
  • Whenever “hot work” is permitted, follow fire service guidelines.
  • Building systems (mechanical/electrical) should have a preventive maintenance programme in place, reviewed every three years.
  • All staff should be trained in emergency response procedures.
  • Formal fire service site visits should be conducted annually.
  • Nominated staff should be trained in emergency collection salvage operations.
  • Disaster simulation exercises involving the fire service and police should be carried out.
  • Fire safety procedures need to be in place if the institution features candles, wood burning fireplaces, wood stoves, etc. or conducts cooking demonstrations, blacksmithing and glass blowing demonstrations or similar activities.
  • Visual inspections should be conducted quarterly to ensure portable fire extinguishers are in their designated place, visible and accessible, seals not broken, and pressure is in the operating range.
  • Extinguishers need to be tested and recharged at specific intervals depending on types.

GBSG has extensive experience in the installation and maintenance of fire prevention systems, as well as the 24-hour monitoring of fire prevention systems. We will be happy to provide you with no-obligation advice on fire safety installations for your institution. 


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