Architecture · Historic Places · Medieval Art and Architecture

I’ve Learned Not To Take Historic Treasures For Granted

Édouard Baldus Notre-Dame (Abside),1860s
Édouard Baldus, Notre-Dame (Abside), c. 1860s. Albumen silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (CC0 1.0).

As I’m sure all of you know by now, the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris caught on fire yesterday and suffered extensive damage. I was very upset. It was horrifying to watch such a beautiful and important structure burn and not know what was going to happen. I wasn’t sure if it would even survive at all. However, I’m heartened to learn today that the damage isn’t as bad as I feared it would be, and it seems that the structure is stable and can eventually be restored.

Yesterday’s events made me appreciate what a true miracle it is that any ancient treasures – buildings, artworks, books, documents, or any other artifacts – survive at all. All of these things, even buildings, are naturally fragile in one way or another. Just time alone can do so much damage, not to mention all the other violence, natural disasters, and mistreatment many monuments and artworks have experienced over the centuries. And as we learned yesterday, just because they’ve gotten this far doesn’t mean that they will always be around.

As someone who spends a lot of time studying history, I’ve gotten used to learning about treasures that no longer exist. Whether they were destroyed in antiquity or much more recently, I can accept that I will never see them. I’m well aware that the way I understand and experience history today is shaped by the circumstances that have helped certain treasures survive and prevented others from doing so. But up until yesterday, anything that had made it this far seemed like it was going to stick around forever. Most cultures take much better care of their historic buildings and artifacts than they used to. It didn’t seem unreasonable to unconsciously assume that once something has made it into the 21st century, it’s no longer in danger for the most part. Well, I obviously don’t believe that anymore. There were a few hours when I really thought that Notre-Dame was going to be gone forever. Parts of it, like the spire, are gone forever. That’s a big reality check. I’ve learned that it’s important to appreciate and take care of what we have, and we should never take it for granted.

I visited Notre-Dame once, back in 2011. I’ve always hoped to return to it, and I’m relieved to know that this will eventually be possible again. If the church really had burned to the ground, I wouldn’t have had to regret never getting the chance to see it, but that’s not true of so many other masterpieces of art and architecture around the world. I’m starting to think that I don’t want to wait any longer to go visit them.

Read my story from yesterday about the building and the fire on DailyArt Magazine.
Update: I wrote a longer article about Notre-Dame’s current condition and potential future here, also on DailyArt Magazine.

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2 thoughts on “I’ve Learned Not To Take Historic Treasures For Granted

  1. just a few comments here from a structural engineer (hey, that rhymes). In that same vein, let’s inject some modern engineering. First, in no way should the exterior appearance of the architecture change, except that different roofing materials can be used (much better than the original ones such as lead). As long as they basically look the same from the outside, we could even have a thin stainless steel roof covering. Second, all the interior wood structure should not be replaced (who sees it anyway except itinerant hunch-backs). We have light-weight materials now (light-gage structural steel for instance) which won’t burn. This interior structure above the stone vaults can even be designed to provide added support for the building: something the original wood beams thankfully did not do, while also being only a fraction of the weight of the burned roof.
    Summary: not to worry about the Notre-Dame, this dame will be as good as new in less than 5 years time.

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