Brazil museum fire is a tragedy for scientific research

Two centuries of time and effort, engulfed in a fiery blaze. 20 million priceless historical and scientific artifacts - gone.

On Sept. 2, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burned to the ground, a national and international tragedy so great that David Reich, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, said “It’s as if the Metropolitan Museum of Art burned down.” The museum was a place where families could enjoy a fun and educational day, students could visit during school trips, and world-renowned paleontologists, anthropologists, and biologists could conduct research in the museum’s extensive archives.

The building that burned housed 90 percent of the museum’s complete collection, with some artifacts dating back millions of years, and provided a space for researchers to learn and discover new ancient species and look back to put the present in context.

The museum specialized in Egyptian mummies, dinosaur fossils, and artifacts local to the region. With the fire, these irreplaceable figments of history and science have been suddenly taken away. The disaster's impact on research will begin to be realized in the coming years as this wealth of knowledge is no longer available.

In an article for The Washington Post, Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, professor of ethnology at the National Museum, wrote that “the destruction of the museum and its collections threatens Brazil’s ethnic minorities.” The museum provided a space to cultivate and protect the indigenous and black cultural history in Brazil and more broadly, South America. It worked with indigenous groups to document their cultural practices, music, and maps, and used affirmative action policies to ensure that native and minority Brazilians would have a hand in recording their own history.

The museum is already planning to rebuild, so that it can continue its mission to preserve and promote cultural and scientific research. But that costs money - as does digital archiving, which would provide “backup” to mitigate any future tragedies. While the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, this event is a clear sign that we need better methods for conservation and digitization.

As for the academics who worked in the museum, their life’s work has been lost. “It is very difficult to react to reality and try to return to life,” said linguist Bruna Franchetta, whose office was destroyed, in a statement to WIRED.

Before the fire, the museum was having funding difficulties, fighting with different governments and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro for resources. The museum had previously resorted to crowdfunding to repair the termite-infested base of a mounted dinosaur. Museum communities around the world, and national and international institutions for art, history, and science must work to support the future of the museum, and the futures of all museums.

Those that criticize museums say they are stuck in the past, constantly mired by the beliefs, values, and perspectives of different eras. But they are essential to our history, and to our human understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
It’s a hackneyed phrase, but that doesn’t make it any less true: if we do not acknowledge the past and seek to understand it, we are destined to repeat it.