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Chantilly Symposium – Main entrance © SDIS60 – A.DHELLY

The new challenges of heritage protection: the Chantilly symposium

By project PROCULTHER-NET staffPublished on 06 June 2023

Four years after the Notre-Dame fire, the Château de Chantilly hosted an international symposium that shared lessons learnt and progress made so far in the protection of cultural heritage buildings in France through coherent approaches and the inter-institutional and coordinated response of all actors involved.

By Col. Philippe Moineaux, Head of the FNSPF/Renault Funds Committee for Cultural Heritage, and Marie Courselaud, President of Blue Shield France / C2RMF

On 15 April 2019, a spectacular fire ravaged the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris for the world to see, taking with it a part of French history and a jewel of humanity's cultural heritage. Although a large part of the building and the main liturgical objects were preserved, two questions remain: “Could the fire have been avoided?” and “Were the cultural assets properly protected and safeguarded?”

In order to answer these two questions, the Fédération Nationale des Sapeurs-Pompiers de France (FNSPF) and the Renault Foundation, joined shortly afterwards by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), initiated, at the beginning of 2020, a global approach aimed at improving fire safety and the protection of cultural property in French heritage buildings. The international symposium organised on 13 and 14 April 2023 at the Château de Chantilly and at the Fire Department 60 in France was, in fact, the culmination of the work carried out by all those involved in heritage protection.

This symposium was devoted to presenting an international overview of disasters, in particular through statistics (identifying the main causes and the operational difficulties encountered in the course of more than 500 fires), as well as addressing the legislative aspects of heritage protection,  looking in depth at prevention and forecasting applied to buildings in the event of a disaster, and reflecting on new protection and intervention techniques, in particular thanks to the feedback generated by the two cathedral fires.

As far as law is concerned, the following two questions initiated the reflection: what legal reference framework should be used? What is the relevance of applying regulations drawn up in the 20thcentury to a building constructed five centuries earlier? On these two questions, the speakers suggested favouring a “case by case” approach based on a performance-based approach founded on a risk analysis, by imagining scenarios and well-defined safety objectives (such as reducing the risk of damage to valuable liturgical objects kept in the sacristy). The question that emerged was: Should a safety programme be drawn up before the design and implementation phases?

In terms of prevention and forecasting, a half-day session devoted to the protection of cultural and heritage assets was an opportunity to recall the interest and need of widely deploying cultural asset protection plans (PSBCs) to all cultural institutions. The round table devoted to this issue proved the dual function of the PSBCs: a tool for the emergency services (which will only intervene during large-scale disasters) but also a decision-making and organisational support for the disaster-stricken establishments (water damage for example). The improvement of PSBCs also involves their dematerialisation, thus facilitating the operational response of emergency services.

The leitmotiv of this half-day event was that the drafting of PSBCs implies the collaborative participation of the emergency services and cultural players, particularly during exercises prepared and organised on a cross-cutting basis. These exercises allow establishments to familiarise themselves with crisis management, the fire brigade to carry out manoeuvres in heritage buildings and Blue Shield France to ensure links with all the players (associations, institutions, emergency services, etc.). This coordinated activity has enabled the taking into account of PSBCs to progress steadily in less than five years for the museums of France (35% in 2023 compared to 17% in 2018) while emphasising the need for continued support by the State services. 

Finally, the presentations of the fire at the cathedrals of Notre-Dame in Paris and Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul in Nantes by, respectively, the chief architect in charge of its reconstruction and the curator of historic monuments, as well as a fire brigade officer and the curator of heritage, showed the interest in pursuing studies and research on new analysis and protection tools: tarpaulins and automatic water extinguishing devices.

This Chantilly conference, which also integrated projects with a European dimension such as PROCULTHER or Cultural HEritagE. Risks and Securing activities- CHEERS, brought together 580 people in situ per day and was followed by over 10,000 people on social networks. It represents, without a doubt, a landmark event in the history of cultural heritage protection in France. More than a conclusion of the work initiated in 2020, it marks the beginning of a new dynamic partnership joining all cultural heritage protection actors in order to avoid new fires in the future and to safeguard the cultural assets as effectively as possible.