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By Jason Enlow
The Musée de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization) has been a landmark on Québec City’s waterfront since it first opened more than 25 years ago. It houses thousands of the province’s most treasured artifacts. But it came perilously close to going up in smoke on Sept. 14, 2014.
“It was around 12:45 p.m.,” recalls Kati Tari, the museum’s director of collections. “I was in a meeting at my office 10 minutes away when I received a phone call from a curator working at the museum telling me there was a fire — I left everything. As I approached the museum, I could see a line of smoke.”
Although the museum was closed at the time, there were 200 employees inside who had to be evacuated. When Tari arrived, they were all outside staring at the fire. “I was in a state of disbelief,” says Tari.
The museum had been undergoing the last stages of repair work begun in 2013. The mortar around the stones on the outside walls, damaged by wind and humidity from the river, had been replaced to help stabilize the famous façade. The windows, the glass tower and the roof were being worked on to prevent water infiltration. “Somehow the motor exploded on the scaffolding elevator,” explains Tari. “That’s how the fire ignited. The interior of the wall was exposed and the insulation caught fire and quickly spread.”
It took 50 firefighters several hours to contain the four-alarm fire. It was 4:00 p.m. before Tari and a few high-ranking staff could return inside. They had to wear boots to wade through the 10cm of water that covered the floor. “We went in to scout out the disaster,” says Tari. “When we saw the water, we worried that the artifacts had been damaged.” As it turns out, it could have been a lot worse, if not for quick-thinking staff and few diligent firefighters. “We were pretty surprised to see that most of the objects were well-protected,” says Tari. “Some of the employees had gone to the basement to get plastic to start covering the objects before they were given the evacuation order. The firefighters then took over, and even though they had a fire to put out, they took the time to cover the rest. When they started hosing down the fire, the water just ran off the protective sheeting.”
Before Tari had gone into the museum to assess the damage, she had placed a call to the Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ). The CCQ employees had been watching the news and had assembled their emergency team. The second time Tari went back into the museum, she was accompanied by her curators and three conservator-restorers from the CCQ. With the end of the day approaching and no electricity, there was little time to waste. “We were working as fast as we could to remove all the objects to protect them from excess humidity,” Tari says. They started with C’est notre histoire (This is Our Story) in the north wing; it was a new permanent exhibit featuring First Nations and Inuit artifacts and art. It was the worst hit.
“All the curators and museology technicians transferred everything to our high-security storage facility in the basement,” explains Tari. One pair of moccasins had gotten wet. At the advice of the CCQ, Tari stuck them in a plastic bag in the freezer to stop the dye from bleeding and help the drying process. Two other exhibit rooms were also affected and these were cleared over the next couple of days. The entire north wing had to be closed off and equipment was brought in to ventilate and maintain the proper level of humidity. After that, all the objects were checked and catalogued, a procedure that took weeks. “It’s the kind of experience that reminds you to always be vigilant,” says Tari. “A drama like this can happen at any time and it’s always sudden.”
Following the fire, the museum received many emails and phone calls from people concerned about the objects and what was going to happen to them. “We felt support from citizens,” says Tari. “It was confirmation that the museum was important and meaningful for them.” The south wing of the museum reopened to the public on Sept. 20. “We were eager to show that the museum was still open,” says Tari. “It was an invitation for the public to come visit us and they did. It was gratifying to see everyone.”
The original copy of the 1763 Treaty of Paris went on display at the museum two weeks later. “Paris was a bit worried, but they saw that the situation had quickly been brought under control,” Tari says. The event was so popular that the Archives Historiques de Paris, which had loaned the treaty to the museum, agreed to extend the treaty’s visit by 10 days. “That was exceptional,” says Tari.
“The museum is like a living organism,” says Tari, “but without the public and the exhibits, it wouldn’t exist.” The first exhibit to reopen will be Horse Power!, the horse-drawn carriages from the collection of Paul Bienvenu. This will be followed by Rebel Bodies, an exhibit about contemporary dance. The This is Our Story exhibit will be the last to reopen because it is the biggest and most complex.
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