WU faculty gives insight on Brazil museum fire

A fire destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and millions of artifacts within its walls on the night of Sept. 2.

In a translated press release, the Brazilian Ministry of Culture stated that the museum was the oldest of its kind in the nation, having celebrated its 200th anniversary in June. It also recognized the toll this fire has caused to Brazil’s history and culture.

“This is an irreparable loss for the country,” the release said. “Brazilian culture and Brazil are in mourning.”

Officials are also investigating what caused this fire, and determining steps to take to stop an incident like this from happening elsewhere in the country

“[The Ministry of Culture] considers that the causes and responsibilities must be rigorously determined,” the release said. “The Ministry of Culture will make every effort to support this project, looking also at the other museums in the country in order to prevent such tragedies from recurring and causing more damage to Brazilian cultural heritage.”

Faculty here at Washburn have unique insight into the type of damage this fire has caused. Alan Bearman, professor of history and dean of university libraries, said the damages are hard to grasp.

“In every conceivable way it’s devastating,” Bearman said. “When a museum and an archive is lost, which has the extent of holdings [as] this one, there’s no way to recover that.”

Bearman likened this incident to the possibility of other major institutions being destroyed.

“Imagine if the British Museum and British Library were gone tomorrow, The Library of Congress [or] the Field Museum in Chicago,” Bearman said. “When something like that happens, there is literally no recovery. You’re talking about one of a kind artifacts and records, unless they’ve been digitized in some form or fashion, no longer exist.”

Bearman also said that even at a local or university level, an incident like this could be devastating. As the dean of libraries he said that a fire at Mabee would have tremendous impact on the history of Washburn.

“It’s the university archives and special collections where we hold a number of irreplaceable items, one of a kinds,” Bearman said. “The original Lincoln College book collection, the only known physical copy of the Beecher’s Bible and records of the history of Washburn that simply can’t be replaced.”

Bearman noted that while some of the archives and collections have been digitized, the university doesn’t have the resources to digitize everything. He was particularly moved by what he saw.

“I watched some of the images from the fire in Brazil and literally my heart just broke,” Bearman said. “As someone who spent a lot of time in old archives, in my case primarily in the United Kingdom and New England, your heart breaks. You literally tear up because you know there is no replacing the things from a fire and human experience is lesser for it because of that.”

As far as Latin American history, this disaster has tremendous impact.

“There’s so much specific history attached to the building itself,” said Kim Morse, Washburn professor and Latin American historian. “The building has a tremendous amount of history, separate from its history as a museum,” Morse said. “[The building] was roughly the equivalent of a Brazilian White House.”

Morse said that when Napoleon invaded the Iberian peninsula King Pedro I, the Portuguese king, fled the area and went to Brazil.

“The museum was what the Portuguese king used as his imperial palace from 1808 until the time that he left in 1821,” Morse said. “Brazil’s actual act of independence was signed in that palace.”

After Napoleon’s reign in Europe, the Portuguese king returned to Portugal but his son, Pedro II, remained in Brazil as emperor and established a constitutional monarchy. The building remained as the palace under this new leader until 1889 when Brazil became a republic.

According to Morse, the building began its role as a museum during Pedro I’s reign.

“The Portugese king, while he was in Brazil began the process of the National Museum in 1818,” Morse said.

Morse said that in terms of the collections and archives that were housed in the museum.

“It’s like losing the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Native American Museum,” Morse said. “The story is now that maybe 10 percent of what they had survived….There’s so much. The oldest known human skeleton from the Americas is probably gone.”

Like Bearman, Morse described the losses as irreplaceable. She said it will definitely hurt anthropologists and cultural historians who deal in pre-Columbian history and culture, but the losses will also affect other scientific fields like entomology and botany.

“[The museum]’s collections were immense and irreplaceable,” Morse said. “They’re gone.”

Because of the destruction of collections and also what she described as a “traditional, documented archival collection,” the biggest loss that Morse sees is the memory of the history and culture of Brazil and Latin America.

“They’ve lost the archival portion plus these multiple layers of natural and anthropological and archeological and artistic history and memory,” Morse said.

Morse said that this incident is also something that must be looked at in the context of contemporary Brazilian politics and society.

“On the one hand you have what Brazilians know is the loss of national memory,” Morse said. “They talk about it in those terms… They also know that it shouldn’t have been lost.”

Morse went on to say that the museum didn’t have sprinkler systems, but only some extinguishers and smoke detectors. It also was not well kept up due to a lack of funding, which has been hurting the overall welfare of the people of Brazil.

“It was kind of held together with spit and duct tape frankly, because of the skill and good work of underpaid archivists and museum employees,” Morse said. “[Due to] a larger economic meltdown of the last several years…that have had a dramatic effect on medical systems, police systems, education systems, everything.”

Morse said that this economic condition is due in large part to cuts in funding from the government, which has had some corruption  in recent years.

“People tie all this together in symbolic meaning,” Morse said. “That the loss of this museum, the loss of this memory is symbolic of the economic crisis and the mismanagement and the corruption of the last several years. That this did not have to happen.”

A lot of this comes down to the idea that memories and archives of society are not completely safe.

“Even in the best designed, best constructed system, something can happen,” Morse said.

Laura Murphy, an anthropology professor who specializes in archeology, spoke of what the loss of this museum and its artifacts mean.

“These are such rare artifacts that represent diversity of cultures,” Murphy said. “To have that loss is to have a loss of cultures, cultural awareness [and] cultural understanding of people who came before us.”

Murphy said that, as anthropologists, they look at how everyone is connected as humans.

“So many of those artifacts do connect us to the earliest peoples of Brazil, of the Amazon, of South America. Those [people] are really important for us to study for understanding how both North and South America were populated from the original people that first came over from Asia and Siberia.”

Murphy said that the loss of the skeleton that Morse mentioned before was particularly devastating.

She hopes that having this story in the news will bring more awareness to the jobs and roles of museums, curators, historians, archeologists and other scientists.

“We’re in the public trust,” Murphy said. “The public trusts us to care for and curate these items, but we have such a hard time doing our jobs because over the past decade we’re seeing our programs being cut.”

Murphy said that they are running out of suitable space to care for items. Places that can regulate things like humidity, temperature, fire and security controls are hard to come by. In particular, some areas have to deal with things such as protection from extreme weather.

“There are threats of flooding and tornadoes in Kansas,” Murphy said.

She said that looking at this loss in Brazil might give society a moment to look at how resources and funding can be used to protect items and artifacts here at home. She did say that there are things people can do to help with this.

“If it’s important to [people] that our natural and cultural resources are preserved than make a point to seek out politicians that will adequately fund our museums and museum programs,” Murphy said. “Get out and visit our museums…If visitation goes up, maybe funding will go up.”

Morse agrees that this is an issue that can be helped when society looks at how its resources are used.

“Washburn as an institution, the U.S. Government, we have to think about how much does our memory mean to us and make sure that we budget accordingly,” Morse said. “It’s not just some dried bugs tacked to cardboard. It’s memory.”