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National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Photo: Wikimedia.

Australia’s Wildfires Force Arts Institutions to Implement Emergency Measures

Art museums and galleries across Australia have been forced to implement emergency safety measures as deadly bushfires rage on. NPR reports that, as of Monday, sixty-nine of the 136 fires remain uncontained despite tremendous efforts by firefighters. At least twenty-five people have died as a result of the fires, which have also taken a devastating toll on the environment. The lives of countless wild animals and livestock have been lost, and millions of acres of land have been scorched.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra temporarily closed its doors on Sunday, January 5, and Monday, January 6, as air quality in the capital city deteriorated, marking the first time the institution has closed for two consecutive days in its fifty-three-year history. “The bushfire is really having an effect and we can’t guarantee the safety of our air quality in the building, with the movements of the doors opening and closing,” museum director Nick Mitzevich said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

In addition to the health of the staff, the institution is concerned with protecting the collection as well as major works that are on loan to the NGA for its current exhibition “Matisse & Picasso” from smoke damage. According to Mitzevich, the works, which include canvases from the Tate in London and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, are not currently at risk since the air quality in the museum is at an “acceptable level” based on EPA guidelines. However, if the NGA remains open when the Air Quality Index surpasses 340—which is double the current levels in Beijing—like it did on Monday, then the works may be compromised. Moving forward, the gallery will decide whether to open on a day-by-day basis.

Another institution that has been impacted by the fires is the Murray Art Museum Albury. On Monday, the air quality in Albury was worse than in Canberra. Director Bree Pickering told the Sydney Morning Herald that the museum would “double-down” on its emergency plan and its efforts to adapt to the community’s needs. She explained that on extremely hot days, people who don’t have air-conditioning in their homes have come to the museum for refuge. “Over the last few days, we’ve had people come through who’ve actually been displaced by the fires and needing to talk about that. So we’re an open piece of infrastructure.”

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in New South Wales has also said that it is trying to keep its doors closed as much as possible. “In future years we will be programming our exhibition space through summer to focus on exhibitions that can’t be damaged by smoke, and also limiting the travelling exhibition works in our store areas,” a spokeswoman for the Blue Mountains City Council said. “In future years we will be programming our exhibition space through summer to focus on exhibitions that can’t be damaged by smoke, and also limiting the travelling exhibition works in our store areas.”

The venue is also allowing locals to store artworks and other valuables in its storage facilities so that they can “have peace of mind.” For individuals worried about safeguarding collections in their homes, the Museums & Galleries of NSW has also listed a number of resources on its website, including links to the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials and to a site with a register of conservators.

While this bushfire season is one of the worst Australia has experienced in decades, fire officials have warned that the fire season may worsen in late January and February. “The crisis is not over,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “There are months to go.”

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