As European museums grapple with heatwaves and wildfires, sweltering workers demand new work plans for ‘extreme weather’

As Europe is literally set on fire, with record heat and wildfires active this week, museums across the continent, particularly in the hard-hit UK, have responded with a mix of last-minute closures and entry free.

As Belgian museums on Tuesday offered free entry to elderly visitors seeking a cool respite in air-conditioned or otherwise cooler buildings elsewhere, some workers at arts institutions, particularly in the UK, have complained of inaction and poor planning of what climate experts warn. become an increasingly common phenomenon.

Our union had asked for the [British] The museum was due to be closed during the heat wave, and we felt our concerns were not taken seriously enough,” wrote Jasmine Lota, health and safety manager for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) Culture Group, in a message to Artnet News.

The museum’s response “felt a bit rushed and last minute, even though they knew a heat wave was coming,” she added. She said some workers “became ill from the temperature and there were reports of visitors fainting and having nosebleeds.”

“There is a health and safety risk to workers any time the temperature exceeds 24 degrees and with indoor temperatures above 32 degrees our members were very concerned (and still are because working temperatures are still too high) typical symptoms of heat stress, such as an inability to concentrate, fainting, or the very serious possible effects of heat stroke that can lead to death,” Lota added on Wednesday.

A view of the glass-roofed courtyard of the British Museum. Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB via Getty Images.

In the UK, an all-time record temperature of 40.3C (104.5F) has upended daily life this week. And in light of some seemingly melodramatic responses to the heat, there was horrified witness reports of unsightly UK lawns turning (gasp) brown— foreigners accustomed to warmer weather did not always immediately understand the urgency. However, as families have lost their homes to the fires and the Mayor of London on Tuesday declared the “busiest day for the London Fire Service since the Second World War’, it has become clearer that this week’s extreme heat has posed a clear danger, and could be followed by another as the summer progresses.

Fires also raged elsewhere in Europeclaiming entire swaths of Italy, France, Spain and Greece, to name a few.

Now unionized UK museum workers say it’s time to agree a policy with UK arts institutions to better manage future climate-related emergencies.

“Formal collective agreements and appropriate policies to ensure the safety of staff and visitors are needed in the future. These types of heat waves are becoming more common, and it’s important that employers and workers know what to do and how to do it,” Nick Marro, an organizer with the PCS Culture Group, wrote in a message to Artnet News. . “Beyond that, we need real action on climate change. For too long, governments have made promises about tackling climate change and then done nothing.

With the British Museum’s large glass roof and lack of air conditioning, the galleries on the upper floors began to warm above 30 degrees C (86 F) on Monday and Tuesday, causing upper levels to close and close early from the entire building to 3 The Victoria and Albert Museum also closed individual galleries earlier this week due to a national red severe weather warning, a museum spokesperson confirmed.

The Madejski Garden at the V&A.  Photo by Sam Mellish/In pictures via Getty Images.

The Madejski Garden at the V&A. Photo by Sam Mellish/In pictures via Getty Images.

A British Museum spokesperson defended the museum’s response to the climate emergency in an email to Artnet News: “The safety and security of our staff, visitors and collection is paramount and we have carried out continuous dynamic assessments of the conditions, associated risks and necessary mitigation measures throughout the period leading up to and including the July 18 and 19 and made adjustments to our approach as needed. . These considerations have been informed by advice and input from a wide range of people, including subject matter experts, field staff and their representatives.

The spokesperson added that the museum informed staff in advance of tips for working in hot weather. “In addition to closing some gallery spaces and early museum closings, we have implemented additional breaks, frequent rotations, relaxed dress codes, access to bottled water and ice buckets and much more. We continue to monitor the situation and the measures we have put in place and will take any further action as necessary,” the spokesperson said.

With reports of possible damage to some art objects from melting wax or glue, the museum said “temperature-sensitive objects” were removed before high temperatures set in. They will stay there until conditions improve.

Unionized workers acknowledged that the British Museum had put in place certain not in response to the heat, and that other museums, like the V&A, “have taken an open and collaborative approach,” according to Marro. But the British Museum “only agreed to implement the measures our members advocated after the employer’s refusal to do so became public knowledge,” Marro said.

“Staff expressed distrust and anger towards senior management [at the British Museum], who make these decisions in their cool offices but don’t suffer them,” said a PCS representative who requested anonymity. “Because a lot of museums are old institutions, I think they’re too concerned about their reputation if they close or let staff relax their dress codes and responsibilities. Therefore, I think the response has been poor, slow and medieval to be honest,” the PCS representative added.

He and others called for “an extreme weather plan”, as well as a summer dress code, air conditioning, alternative transport options organized by the museum, and “a national temperature limit on safe working conditions”.

Ill-equipped to deal with the extreme heat, museums with older infrastructure or with glass roofs – standing under the Louvre’s glass pyramid on a sunny day is no small feat – face the prospect of heatwaves more and more frequent and their consequences.

“While historically there have been hot summers, the very high magnitudes in this part of the world are more recent and the result of climate change is increasing global average temperatures as well as extreme temperatures,” said Mariam Zachariah, associate research at the Grantham Institute. , Imperial College London, told Artnet News. “If we don’t stop net greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect high temperatures to become more common in the future.”

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