Protecting the largest museum in the world from fire

The Smithsonian Institution was established with funds from Englishman, James Smithson, a British scientist who left his estate, which totalled half a million dollars, to the United States to found an establishment for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” On August 10, 1846, the U.S. Senate passed the act organising the Smithsonian Institution, which was signed into law by President James K. Polk and is now the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

Visitors can pay homage to Smithson with a visit to his crypt, located on the first floor of the Smithsonian Castle. We speak with Michael Kilby, Associate Director for Fire Protection, Smithsonian Institution.

So, how big is the Smithsonian Institution?

The Smithsonian consist of 21 museums, galleries and gardens, the National Zoological park, and nine research centres including the Fort Pierce Marine Station in Florida and its Tropical Research Institute in Panama as well as the recently established National Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino.

You obviously have a variety of buildings, with many different functions… Tell us a little more about some of the individual sites.

The oldest is the Smithsonian Castle which was completed in 1855 and contains collections’ highlights from each of the Institutions museums.  161 years later we opened The National Museum of African American History and Culture, where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives, and how it helped shape this nation.

Spanning 140,000 square metres, the Natural History Museum, which opened to the public in 1910, is our largest building and home to the largest natural history collection in the world including the Hope Diamond and 46 million fossils.

And of course there are many thousands of square metres of specialist storage, conservation labs, archives and research libraries.

As a risk specialist, can you illustrate to the readership the risks the Smithsonian sites are exposed to?

Fire is the greatest threat to museums and cultural properties. One of the most destructive fires in recent years occurred in September 2018 when the National Museum of Brazil was heavily damaged by a large fire and although some items were saved, it is believed that 92.5% of its archive of 20 million items were destroyed. Brazilian President Michel Temer said that the loss due to the fire was ‘incalculable’.”

Museum Deputy Director Luiz Fernando Dias Daniel commented that curators “fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed”. The museum lacked a fire sprinkler system, although there were smoke detectors and a few fire extinguishers.

What is the Smithsonian fire protection strategy?

I like to call it our three-legged stool approach…

Prevention: segregating operations – ignition sources – combustibles – wildfire precautions

Containment: fire-rated barriers – collection storage – hazardous operations

Detection & suppression: fire suppression – fire detection

It would be good if we could focus on fire suppression, and I would be especially interested to learn about the automatic fire sprinklers you have installed?

We have four types of suppression systems protecting the various Smithsonian buildings: total flooding gaseous; hypoxic air; water mist; sprinklers.

The benefits of sprinkler protection as I see it are: automatic response – no waiting for the fire department; sprinklers are heat activated; effective fire control; a fraction of the volume of water is released compared to hose streams; low maintenance and of vital import, they are extremely reliable.

Today approximately 90% of Smithsonian spaces are protected by sprinklers.

Has there ever been a major fire at the Smithsonian?

The original Smithsonian Institution Building, often called the Smithsonian Castle, caught fire in 1865 when workmen mistakenly installed a stovepipe in the building wall. The building was poorly fireproofed and the fire burned unnoticed within the walls for several days. When it erupted, it destroyed the lecture hall, apparatus room, Board of Regent’s room, Secretary’s office, the Picture Gallery, and all the priceless artifacts they housed. The main room of the museum and the library were saved. The Castle was rebuilt beginning in spring 1867 and fireproofed throughout.

In contrast a fire on a balcony in the Castle library in 2017 actuated a sprinkler head which extinguished the fire damaging little more than the carpet and the balustrade paintwork.

Retrofitting sprinklers into heritage buildings must present many challenges and require special care and attention.

What are the key things that concern you?

Obviously the protecting historic elements and aesthetics and the unique architecture of the building thus working with experienced and specialist architects and installers to ensure sympathetic but effective installations. This involved identifying and utilising building shafts, ceiling cavities and other feature to conceal pipe – even using crown molding. Having said that we have used copper piping in exposed areas, painting it to match the surroundings. And of course concealed sprinkler heads, when factory painted to match the décor disappear into the background.

After more than thirty years developing a programme of sprinkler installations, what lessons have you learned?

It is essential to utilise a sprinkler contractor which has experience with museums and historic buildings and also incorporate precautions into the contract including physical protection for building features and collections and essentially pre-test with air, not water, for areas highly vulnerable to water damage

During the installation period regularly check that plans are being followed, approved materials and methods used, the workmanship is satisfactory and the historic fabric protected. A thorough final inspection should be undertaken examining all piping, fittings, heads, valves, drains, signage and verifying accuracy of as-built drawings and of course a pressure test for 200 psi for 2 hours, checking each joint for leaks. Also a final check on the proper number and type of spare sprinkler heads are supplied.

Inspections, testing and maintenance for the life of the system is also key.

There are still many people who are fearful of using water based suppression systems to protect precious and irreplaceable properties and assets, how did you convince your teams to accept accept and respect the value of sprinklers?

We undertook a programme to consider fire risk vs risk of water damage; presented examples of museum fires; examined how sprinkler systems work; illustrated the reliability of sprinklers; offered comparisons of water usage: -sprinkler ~ 80 – 180 lpm v fire hose ~ 950 lpm. And of course address and dispel the common myths:

All the sprinklers activate at once during a fire – only in Hollywood!

System will discharge as much water or more than fire department

Incompatible with historic buildings

Sprinklers are ugly!

In conclusion, I believe that with careful design and installation, and a more informed museum staff, comes greater acceptance and confidence in sprinkler systems.

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