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Remember Notre-Dame

Anita Walker, Executive Director

Notre-Dame. Royalty free image.

It is both riveting and heartbreaking. Unbelievable. It survived 800 years, revolution, war, neglect. Yet, the live images don’t lie. Notre-Dame is in flames. The spire, a silhouette in orange glow, collapses before our eyes.

The world feels the loss. An icon, that attracted 13 million visitors a year, has suffered catastrophic damage. It can be rebuilt…it will be rebuilt…but the layers of history cannot be recovered.

The good news in Massachusetts is that for the past 12 years we have been investing in new roofs, upgraded electrical systems, fire suppression…deferred maintenance…through the Cultural Facilities Fund. We can be proud of the $110 million of public money that has attracted $2.6 billion for more than 800 projects, primarily to shore up and preserve these irreplaceable assets. In fact, I shudder to think of how many catastrophes were lying in wait before this public support was available.

Imagine losing the Old North Church, which has been able to discover more history through a renovation project rather than trying to recreate it after calamity. Step into the stacks at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, holding an irreplaceable 100 years of stories in the original newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, and other printed material. Overhead, in this room, is a labyrinth of iron pipes, poised to gush water in the event of a fire. The water would do more damage than the flames. Now the collection is protected by modern gas fire suppression. So are Thomas Jefferson’s diaries and an original Declaration of Independence at Mass Historical Society. All funded through the Cultural Facilities Fund.

This program is not only focused on fixing what’s broken. It is a preventive program as well. Over the past 12 years, cultural organizations have learned to plan for the inevitable deterioration and decline of their roofs and HVAC systems and infrastructure so what once was an emergency can become part of daily business expense.

But bricks and mortar alone do not ensure a future for the history for which Massachusetts is guardian. We must also invest in the people and expertise within these buildings.

I was glued to the TV as news broke of the fire at Notre-Dame.  Just as the aeronautic experts populate the panels after a plane crash, this time it is the art historians helping us understand and cope with the gravity of the loss. Here they were to perform the autopsy, when everyday, in the basements and back rooms of our museums, they are working to keep our precious history alive.

I’ve watched a textile conservator, day after day, bend over a Civil War battle flag, preserving the story it told, thread by thread, quarter inch by quarter inch. I’ve seen the grime carefully removed from an oil painting, slowly, tediously, with a Q-tip, so the bright color could return.

It is always remarkable to me that we seem to value our shared cultural treasures most when they are lost or destroyed. Everyday in Massachusetts, the things and records and buildings that tell the story of the birth of our nation, are quietly cared for by talented museum professionals. Every year we seek the financial resources necessary to make sure the next generation has a chance to marvel at them. If only we could feel the emotion, the sense of awe, the heartfelt respect for our shared treasures when we are trying to secure the funds to protect them. Before it’s too late.

Memories are short. The past would be unknowable without the people who take care of it for us.

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