It’s easy to take cultural heritage for granted. Culture is that intangible force that glues our sense of identity together; it shapes the way we think, how we speak, socialize, play, create, and generally experience being human. It’s no secret that all of these things evolve over time, or that the character of our societies and our selves are largely defined by the generations of endeavor that came before us. History matters. That’s why we have museums, after all.
The brick and mortar and the rarified atmosphere of museums help to lend a sense of permanence and security to our accumulation of culture and knowledge, like impenetrable red tape around the important parts of history that helped define the present – the parts worth remembering and cherishing. We feel the swell of deference and awe when we visit museums and engage with our heritage. Most of the time, though, we don’t give cultural heritage much thought. Like oxygen, we breathe it in with little moment-to-moment reflection. It’s a constant, or so it seems.
Sadly, as with many things in life, it takes a tragedy to reveal the importance and impact of cultural heritage on who we are. The fire that decimated Brazil’s Museu Nacional on Sunday night has served as a stark reminder that our cultural institutions (and the heritage they preserve) are too precious to be taken for granted. In a matter of hours, the majority of the museum’s 200 years of curation of over 20 million valuable exhibits perished.
While the total level of the destruction has yet to be tallied, what is already clear is that much of the Museu Nacional in Rio, Latin America’s largest natural history museum and its contents have been irreversibly engulfed in flames. Flames fanned by negligence. Along with the physical treasures and artifacts that perished on Sunday, a record of Brazil’s cultural heritage and a vast trove of scientific knowledge and resources have also gone up in smoke.
Among the lost treasures were: the 11,500-year-old skull of Luzia, the earliest discovered human remains in the Americas; extraordinary mummified remains from Chile; hundreds of thousands of butterflies and invertebrate species, including the oldest known scorpion ancestor; dinosaur and pterosaurs fossils and skeletons – some complete with preserved soft-tissue; frescoes from Pompeii; and ancient artifacts from Egypt.
Some of the most painful and tragic losses were anthropological. Museu Nacional housed amazing records of Brazil’s dwindling indigenous cultures, including audiotapes of languages that are no longer spoken, as well as artworks, masks, weapons, and materials that were some the last remnants of Brazil’s pre-colonial culture. The sense of loss felt around the country is hard to fully comprehend for non-Brazilians, but it’s not hard to empathize with at all.
Much will be written about the lack of functioning sprinkler systems, the lack of renovations, and the fire-risk that was flagged multiple times before Sunday’s catastrophe unfolded. Fingers will be rightly pointed and, hopefully, lessons will be learned – so that this never happens again anywhere in the world. Culture is too precious to be left as a fire hazard.
It’s easy to take cultural heritage for granted, but Sunday should serve to remind us that we risk losing a lot more than pretty exhibits, handsome buildings, and tourist attractions if we fail to maintain and appreciate our cultural institutions. We risk losing the very things that make ‘us’ us.
If you visited the museum before Sunday’s fire and took pictures of the building and/or its exhibits, please head over to this Wikipedia page to learn how you can help the recovery effort.