by David Jiang
Sunday, September 2, 2018. For me, the date will always be remembered as a happy one: the start to an exciting eight month bridge-year odyssey. Yet, in the meantime, to the hundreds of millions of Brazilians around the world, September 2 will forever be a day marked by unfathomable tragedy.
This tragedy’s true impact transcends far beyond its country of origin. What happened that day marks an event when the whole of humanity forever lost a part of its story. Although the horrific events occured in a city that I have yet to visit within a country I have only just begun to understand, my heart goes out to all that are suffering.
In the evening of that fateful day, an immense fire broke out in the National Museum of Brazil (Museu Nacional), located in Rio de Janeiro. The ferocious blaze spread to all three levels of the museum, consuming nearly everything in its path. Although firefighters arrived quickly to the scene, the two closest fire hydrants were dry, forcing them to fetch water from a lake. By the time they controlled the inferno, it was already too late. The museum was the home to over 20 million artifacts of incalculable historical and scientific value. Now, almost all are destroyed.
Housing one of the most important collections in the Western hemisphere, this museum was a testament of over two centuries of Brazilian heritage and exploration. Its collection included the country’s largest dinosaur fossil, a 12,000 year old prehistoric human skeleton, as well one of the greatest compilations of Pre-Columbian artifacts. Its historic specialty extended far across the world, featuring priceless relics from the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. These were the things that were razed. Eradicated. Lost.
At first glance, being a foreigner who arrived here a week ago, the event seemed like nothing “out-of-the-ordinary”. At first, to me, this museum fire represented only just another depressing story, swirling in the cloud of calamities of our grim world (as news media would have us believe). Yet, my view quickly changed once we all took a moment of silence for it at a morning orientation meetings. It was then that I dove a little deeper and realized the event’s true magnitude.
For the non-Brazilians out there, think about it like this. Imagine if we lost Smithsonian Museums or National Archives overnight. Or for those in the United Kingdom, the British Museum destroyed without notice. For the French, the Louvre gone in mere hours. So on. Then think about the priceless items held within their walls: artifacts that educate us of our past, in all of its triumphs and failures. The destruction that took place on that day in Rio is all that for Brazilians.
Despite being an institution of national importance, museum officials struggled to meet the minimum R$520,000 (~$126,000) annual budget, which took a toll on the crumbling building (evidenced by the “peeling wall material and exposed electrical wiring”). The struggle was due in part because of the dwindling sense of responsibility and care for museums in general, with most Brazilians either taking them for granted or treating them with apathy. For example, what was supposed to be a major 200th anniversary celebration for the National Museum (which took place this past June), resulted in a poor, near-empty turnout. These factors, in combination with irresponsible government spending and corruption, sealed the fate of Brazil’s oldest and arguably most prominent museum.
Museums, from the distinguished to the local, are the guardians of our history. They remind us of our roots, helping us hold onto the heritage that bonds us together, as well as providing us guidance in improving our future. As citizens, we all have a renewed responsibility in defending their survival. No matter what your beliefs, political ideology, and interests are, as humans, we all have an obligation to protect the truth of our story. We must safeguard it from those who maliciously attempt to compromise its integrity, especially in our current climate, for selfish political or monetary gain. This is the obligation we are tasked. This is why we have to care about our museums: to preserve ourselves.
So, take whatever empowers you, whether it be your voice, volunteer hours, or vote, to perform this obligation as a proud citizen of your country, and a human in the world. We can all take a lesson from Brazil.
Phillips, Dom. “Brazil Museum Fire: ‘Incalculable’ Loss as 200-Year-Old Rio Institution Gutted.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Sept. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/03/fire-engulfs-brazil-national-museum-rio.
Andreoni, Manuela, et al. “Brazil Museum Fire Leaves Ashes, Recrimination and Little Else.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/03/world/americas/brazil-museum-fire.html.
Museu Nacional Teve Proposta De US$ 80 Milhões Do Banco Mundial.” O Globo, O Globo, 4 Sept. 2018, oglobo.globo.com/rio/museu-nacional-teve-proposta-de-us-80-milhoes-do-banco-mundial-23036407.
“Brazil’s National Museum Hit by Huge Fire – BBC News.” BBC, BBC, 3 Sept. 2018, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-45392668.
Fire Image: “’Incalculable Loss’ as Fire Destroys Brazil’s National Museum.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, www.nbcnews.com/news/latin-america/firefighters-battle-massive-blaze-esteemed-rio-museum-n905901.
Fossil Image: “Museu Nacional (Rio De Janeiro) – 2018 O Que Saber Antes De Ir – Sobre o Que as Pessoas Estão Falando.” TripAdvisor, www.tripadvisor.com.br/Attraction_Review-g303506-d311267-Reviews-National_Museum-Rio_de_Janeiro_State_of_Rio_de_Janeiro.html#photos;aggregationId=&albumid=101&filter=7&ff=51851372.
Museu Nacional Image: Bessa, Simone. “Museu Nacional – UFRJ (National Museum – UFRJ ).” MUSEUS DO RIO.COM.BR, www.museusdorio.com.br/joomla/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=99%3Amuseu-nacional-ufrj-national-museum-ufrj.