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The Fire of Notre Dame: A Tragedy Reminds Us of the Importance of Preserving Cultural Heritage

The fire burning on the evening of April 15, 2019.

On Monday the world watched as Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the most internationally famous cathedrals and cultural landmarks, tragically erupted in flames most likely caused by an accident related to on-going restoration.

Attention and concern was immediately directed towards the fate of the numerous irreplaceable relics, statuary, paintings, stained glass, and other objects housed in the cathedral. Some of the holdings of Notre Dame had already been rehoused prior to the beginning of the restoration process, such as the Holy Crown of Thorns and the thirteenth-century tunic of Louis IX, the only French king to be canonized. The sixteen copper statues adorning the center of the roof had also already been airlifted out prior, saving them from an otherwise likely demise when the cathedral’s spire collapsed. Since the fire began on the roof, burning the centuries-old timber beams and melting its lead covering, the interior was not fully destroyed; the stone vaulting in the ceiling remained intact, preventing the burning timber from falling into the building below. Other relics and paintings were able to be removed once the fire was controlled, though they will need to be cleaned, dehumidified, and restored. The stained glass in the three famous rose windows has also reportedly survived, though the windows will need to be examined in-depth for any signs of hidden damage.

The cathedral's spire collapsing.

The unique, priceless nature of these objects leads to questions of next steps in destructive cases such as this and reminds us of the importance of appraisal services. In situations in which precious objects need to be insured and protected, an appraisal is an invaluable service that saves precious time and resources in the long run. These services would include a full inventory of objects held by the institution and their corresponding replacement values. This process ensures that the scope of the holdings is accurately recorded and adequate insurance coverage is provided in case of an accident or emergency situation such as the one that just occurred in Paris. Appraisals are also individually tailored to fit the institution’s collection and needs specifically, maintaining that the proper arrangements can be made to cover the objects.

It is often tragic circumstances that bring large-scale attention to institutions, their collections, and the importance of being prepared and insured for such events in the future. Notre Dame itself had already experienced this, as its current (pre-fire) state was brought about only in the nineteenth century when Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) renewed public interest. The cathedral was still functioning during this time, but its interior was largely battered and in ruins, leading King Louis Philippe to order a full restoration of the church. The commission was won by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Violett-le-Duc, whose likeness is reflected in the statue of Saint Thomas that once adorned the spire. They supervised the execution of a grand plan that involved remaking the original cathedral decorations from extant drawings and engravings as well as adding new elements in the spirit of the original style. Notre Dame was also renovated in 1991 after deterioration caused by increased air pollution during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Current French president Emmanuel Macron announced that plans to rebuild the landmark will be underway as soon as possible, supported by an international fundraising campaign. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also launched an international architectural competition to rebuild the cathedral’s spire, citing the historic responsibility of such a challenge. Hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged by French billionaires like François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault for the restoration, ensuring that this extraordinary cathedral will continue to be a symbol of France for many centuries to come.

The interior of Notre Dame the following day after the fire had been fully extinguished.
A comparison of the cathedral before and after the fire, which destroyed the roof and the famous spire.

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