The Fire at Brazil’s National Museum

brazil, museum fire, museums
Marabou looking at the photo coverage of the September 2nd fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Photo found on The Atlantic’s website, photo by Buda Mendes/Getty.

This past Sunday, September 2nd, a fire destroyed Brazil’s National Museum, a natural history museum, in Rio de Janiero. News outlets around the world from The Guardian to National Geographic to The Atlantic have reported on the fire, many sharing the same devastating news:

  • The museum was Brazil’s largest natural history museum and built its collection over a 200 year period.
  • It is feared that 90% of the museum’s collection, composed of 20 million specimens, may have been lost.
  • Among the loses are artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and many indigenous cultures throughout Brazil, including recordings of indigenous languages no longer spoken.
  • Among the biological, anthropological, and paleontological specimens were dinosaur bones and a 11,500 year old skull nicknamed “Luzia” one of the oldest fossils found in Brazil.
  • The largest meteorite found in Brazil, discovered in 1784 and weighing in at 116,000 pounds, is one of the museum’s big attractions that likely survived the fire.
  • The museum had just recently secured $5 million to renovate and upgrade the institution. A fire prevention system was part of the multi-million dollar plan. Too little too late.
  • People are blaming the Brazilian government. The museum was left neglected with funding continually decreasing while state money was redirected to more glitzy projects like the 2014 World Cup.

The media coverage, posing questions such as “Brazils’ National Museum Fire: What It Means for Science” and subtitles that read “Irreplaceable Loss” express a gravity felt internationally. The reactions are dramatic and heartfelt. Roberto, a Student at Federal University of Rio de Janiero, said in an interview, “Graduates and PhD students of our university lose our own access to valuable materials. It feels like we are seeing our own homes being burnt down.” As shared in The Atlantic, “Marina Silva, a candidate in Brazil’s upcoming elections, described the fire as ‘a lobotomy in Brazilian memory.'” In a Tweet, John R. Hutchinson, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in England, described the loss of a specific holotype specimen (holotypes are the best examples of a species) as a stab in the heart. Illustrator Márcio L. Castro posted this on Instagram to express his grief (the caption translates to: I’m sorry, at that moment I can only express my broken heart with a drawing.):

Reading these articles and reactions from around the world made Marabou think of a question they posed a few Fridays ago, “Beyond the official definition, what does ‘museum” mean to you?’ From these emotional–even visceral–responses, museums are so much more that institutions that collect and display objects. Marabou thinks museums are homes to both objects and people. Museums are memory repositories. Museums are keepers of history. Museums are foundations of identity. Museums can be mourned.

A second question also came up for Marabou: Who is responsible for ensuring the safety and endurance of a museum? A day after the fire, people took to the streets to protest the Brazilian government’s negligence of the National Museum. A protestor held a sign that read, “Congelar verbas da ciência, cultura e educação é fogo.” (Freezing funds for science, culture, and education is fire.) According to The Guardian, the National Museum was so low on funding that when a termite infestation forced the closure of one the main galleries, museum officials turned to the public to crowdsource the funds for exterminators and renovation. Another account said that an employee at the museum thought the state of the building was so precarious, he would unplug his electronics before leaving work at night for fear of fire. There doesn’t seem to be one right answer to the question of who is responsible. Responsibility for museums varies country by country. In some countries, the government is the main funder of museums while in places like the United States most museums depend on private funding from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

The devastation of the Brazil National Museum’s fire brings up many questions and emotions. Perhaps seeing how much was lost and how this loss was felt internationally will encourage individuals and governments to reflect upon and reconsider our national, municipal, and individual relationships with objects and museums and the experiences they provide, memories they make, and identities they confirm or deny.

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