The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

Notre-Dame is Burning: Learning from the Crisis of a Superstar Religious Monument (Abridged)

On the night of 15 April 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral caught fire.  Within a few hours, two thirds of the roof, the structure and the 93-metre spire of this building, whose construction began in the 12th century, were destroyed and parts of the interior were grievously damaged. But due to the efforts of 500 firefighters, the cathedral’s structure was “saved and preserved in its entirety,” according to Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the Paris Fire Brigade. The two towers with their immense bells still stand and many of the cathedral’s priceless treasures have survived.

But in its nearly 900-year history, Notre-Dame de Paris had never burned. This was an unprecedented shock (Gombault 2019), an “acute and painful manifestation” of a crisis (Morin 1976) that had crept in long before and will slowly unfold over several years, to be analyzed in the literature as a process rather than an event.

In the processual approach, crisis is perceived as a long incubation process that suddenly becomes manifest by way of a precipitating event. Supporters of this approach defend the idea that crises develop in phases: warning signs, acute stage, amplification, resolution (Gatot et al. 1999; Turner 1976). The acute phase is only the peak of an accumulation of organizational dysfunctions that have existed for a long time but have been overlooked. The processual approach thus suggests the existence of a genealogy of crises, as indicated by some researchers (Pauchant and Mitroff 1992; Shrivastava 1992).

In the case of Notre-Dame, we can clearly identify the various phases of the crisis.There were warning signs, such as inadequate requirements for work on historic monuments and inadequate resources allocated to their preservation. Several reports had cited various risks, including the risk of fire. The fire started in the 13th-century oak frame, which was undergoing repairs. The acute phase lasted from 6:43 am on 15 April until the fire was extinguished at 3:30 am on the 16th. The amplification phase spanned several months, intensely for about a week, with the media coverage of the crisis and its emotional dimension, then in a muted way, during the summer, with the crisis over lead levels, the slow and painstaking consolidation of the building, and the reconstruction debate.

The resolution phase began virtually during the fire with President Macron’s speech in front of the still glowing cathedral: “Pride. We built this cathedral and over the centuries we have made it grow and improved it. So I say to you solemnly this evening: we will rebuild this cathedral, all of us together . . . We will rebuild Notre-Dame.” All French citizens became cathedral builders, in a moment of sacred union in a secular society.

Notre-Dame-de-Paris’ fire seen from the Ministry of Research (credit: Marind). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that the new fire risks introduced into the old structure, which was built at a time when there was no fire code, and which itself is a source of combustible materials, have resulted in its partial destruction. In the face of such fragility, decision-making, financing and governance systems become crucial to the proper management of a monument. However, in the case of Notre-Dame, the unnecessary complexity of governance, the opacity of decisions, and the lack of adequate funding are seen as having induced and aggravated the crisis.

The identification and characterization of crisis-fostering environments and the processes of organizational weakening call for a study of two complementary phenomena: organizational imperfections and managerial ignorance (Roux- Dufort 2007b, 2010). The notion of organizational imperfection indicates a cumulative crisis-conducive process. Organizations are generators of imperfections because any development, progress or growth generates its own weaknesses: anomalies, dysfunctions, vulnerabilities. In this regard, crisis is inherent in any evolutionary process. A crisis is never exceptional but reveals a stage of development beyond which the organization can no longer operate as before. It is therefore necessary to explore a complementary concept: managerial ignorance. Too often, managers suggest that these events are not dependent on their will because they are considered exceptional. They highlight the abnormal nature of the event to avoid questioning the abnormality of internal imbalances. But a crisis offers the possibility of using the exceptional to revisit normality, to use the singular to understand regularity.

Managers must rely on events to report on recurrent vulnerabilities, their development and their anchoring. By bridging the gap between the singular and the regular, they can restore the event’s potential to reconfigure possibilities and thus draw on the potential for learning and the change it brings.

This case offers lessons for risk management, decision-making, financing and governance, conservation and architectural innovation of a historic monument. It will be interesting to observe, in the next five to 10 years, the complete resolution of the crisis, the innovations it has made possible in the cathedral’s management, and its impact on the management of religious monuments in France. It will also be interesting to observe the reconstruction of the crisis a posteriori with the actors as they experienced it from within.

Read the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 22, Number 2, Winter 2020 (link to come).