Smoke From Australia’s Devastating Wildfires Has Forced the Closure of the National Gallery in Canberra

Valuable Picasso and Matisse paintings are currently on loan to the Canberra museum.

The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has closed due to wildfire smoke. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has closed due to wildfire smoke. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

As devastating wildfires continue to rage in Australia, Canberra’s National Gallery has been forced to temporarily shut down as a protective measure. Air quality conditions in the city have deteriorated due to smoke from the worst bushfire season in modern history, and opening the building’s doors could jeopardize the artwork.

The move marks the first time in the museum’s 53-year history that it has closed due to smoke (or ever closed for two or more consecutive days). “Closing our doors allows us to mitigate any risk to the public, staff, and works of art on display. We are sorry for any inconvenience,” wrote the museum on Twitter on Sunday. A second post on Facebook extended the closure through Monday. Would-be visitors to the current exhibition, “Matisse & Picasso,” (on view through April 13) can return at any point during the exhibition’s run or return their tickets for a refund.

The flames have been stoked by hot weather and strong winds and so far the bushfires have burned some 12.4 million acres of land across Australia, according to the Associated Press. The state of New South Wales, around both Canberra and Sydney, is among the hardest hit regions, with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service reporting 136 fires, 69 of them currently uncontained.

It’s estimated that the bushfires could kill up to one billion animals, while the human death toll has climbed to 24, with 2,000 homes burned to the ground, reports Sky News.

Art handlers at the National Gallery of Australia install Pablo Picasso's <em>L'Arlésienne: Lee Miller</em> (1937). Private international collection ©Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Art handlers at the National Gallery of Australia install Pablo Picasso’s L’Arlésienne: Lee Miller (1937). Private international collection ©Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

The fires also present a significant threat to works of art. “Smoke is suspended airborne particles,” National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Those airborne particles can have any number of carcinogenics in them. If they settle on a painting or a textile or a photograph, they could have a corrosive effect on the surface. Anything in the air that is a foreign body has the potential to deteriorate artworks over time.”

The museum’s current exhibition on Matisse and Picasso includes loans from the Tate in London and the Musée national-Picasso Paris. “All our lenders have been informed of what we have been doing and the way we have been protecting the collection,” Mitzevich told the Daily Telegraph. “At the moment the artworks are not under any threat at all.”

A fire rages in Bobin, Australia, on November 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes that are raging in the state of New South Wales. Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/via Getty Images.

A fire rages in Bobin, Australia, on November 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes that are raging in the state of New South Wales. Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/via Getty Images.

Other Australian museums are also being affected by the ongoing disaster. Air quality in the city of Albury, home to the Murray Art Museum Albury, is even worse than in Canberra. Nevertheless, the institution has opted thus far to remain open, offering an air-conditioned respite from the heat, particularly for those displaced by evacuation orders. The Show and Tell Gallery in the small town of Corryong even served as a temporary shelter for 30 local residents on New Year’s Day. The space’s director, Joshua Colling, was among those whose homes burned down.

The unprecedented intensity of this year’s fire season is forcing institutions to reconsider how and when they mount shows in the future. Until the air has cleared, the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, host of the upcoming National Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, is trying to limit how often the gallery doors are opened. “In future years we will be programming our exhibition space through summer to focus on exhibitions that can’t be damaged by smoke,” a Blue Mountains City Council spokesperson told the Herald.


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