Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

After Brazil museum fire

In this Sept. 2, 2018 file photo, flames engulf the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. Ever since a fire gutted Brazil’s 200-year-old museum, the question has been: Could what was destroyed be restored? (Leo Correa, File/Associated Press).

Sarah Dilorenzo, After Brazil museum fire, debate over how, or if, to rebuild, The Washington Post, September 2018

SAO PAULO — Ever since a fire gutted Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the question has been: Could what was destroyed be restored?

A flicker of hope emerged last week when an emergency mission from the U.N. cultural agency held out the possibility that some objects had survived the Sept. 2 blaze and outlined a plan to rebuild the museum and its collection by repairing damaged pieces, soliciting donations and even creating replicas of lost artifacts using 3D technology.

But the prospect of a new museum rising from the ashes has sparked a debate about whether the institution can, or even should, be reconstructed. International experts warn there are limits to any such effort, emphasizing the inescapable loss of original, irreplaceable objects, while some in Brazil question the rush to rebuild before the wholesale neglect of the museum has been examined.

While it is heartening to see global experts rushing to Brazil’s aid, when “I hear people talking with extreme optimism about this issue, I cannot help but think that they don’t quite understand what was lost,” said Marcus Guidoti, a Brazilian doctoral candidate who used the museum’s collection in his research.

In a world where memories are constantly being backed up to the cloud and experts warn that data never truly gets deleted, museums are among the last “bastions of authenticity,” said Vincent S. Smith, head of the Diversity & Informatics Division at the Natural History Museum in London.

“There is magic in that authenticity,” he said.

The National Museum had authenticity in spades. Its colonial-era building was the backdrop to much of Brazil’s history — a onetime royal palace that served as the seat of the united Portuguese and Brazilian empire before the museum’s collection was transferred there in 1892. Among the objects feared lost from the 20 million-piece collection: furniture and art belonging to the royal family; recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; priceless specimens of everything from rare butterflies and other insects to coral; a collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts considered the largest in Latin America; frescoes from Pompeii and one of the oldest human fossils ever found in the Americas.

Tidbits have slowly emerged about what might have survived: A massive meteorite resisted the flames. Centuries-old Torah scrolls, considered among Judaism’s oldest documents, were moved before the fire. A handful of objects were on loan, and some parts of the collection, including the museum’s library and plant specimens, were housed outside the colonial-era palace. Firefighters found as yet unidentified bone fragments in a room where skulls were held.

But the fate of the majority of the collection held in the main building remains unclear: Aerial images show little more than a heap of rubble within its walls. So much is feared lost that a presidential candidate called the disaster a “lobotomy of Brazilian history.”

As Brazil reeled, the head of UNESCO’s mission to Brazil, Cristina Menegazzi, laid out a plan last week: Archaeologists and other experts would sort through the ashes and save and repair anything they can. In cases where pieces are irreparable but similar objects exist elsewhere, the museum will ask for donations or loans. For unique objects that were lost, officials will consider building replicas using photographs or 3D imaging.

Digital scans exist of a few hundred pieces, among them the 11,500-year-old skull known as Luzia, said Jorge Lopes, a specialist in 3D design who had been working with the museum to create a digital archive. The Institute for Digital Archaeology, which has reconstructed lost cultural objects, is offering to build up to five at no charge.

Still, some question the rush to rebuild. In the wake of the fire, museum officials have spoken of how they struggled for years to get the money they needed to repair the decrepit building. One official said smoke detectors were not working at the time of the disaster, and photos have emerged of leaks, cracked walls and exposed wiring.

Many Brazilians saw the blaze as a tragedy foretold and an apt metaphor: Their history up in flames at a time when cuts were being made to educational and cultural institutions and a massive corruption scheme had raided government coffers. There has been much hand-wringing about whether a poor education system or Brazilians’ lack of interest in their own history contributed to the neglect.

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