It has been almost three weeks since a massive fire destroyed the building and most of the collections at Brazil’s National Museum. It is an unmitigated disaster for the people of Brazil, especially its indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage was housed there, and it is also a disaster for anthropologists and anthropological research. Reports suggest that the museum’s anthropological collections were among the most hard-hit.
According to the New York Times, the casualties include, or may include:
- a fossilized skull named Luzia, one of the oldest examples of human remains in the Americas (11,500 years old)
- feather work, masks, pottery, and other artifacts from Brazil’s indigenous peoples
- other artifacts from Pompeii, Egypt, and the Arctic
Also among the casualties is the museum’s collection of audio recordings of indigenous languages. A recent Facebook post from a scholar associated with the museum stated:
“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”
News reports and analyses of the fire and its impact can be found here, here, here, here and here.
Although the physical cause of the fire is still under investigation, a less proximate cause is the fact that the museum had been depleted of financial support from the Brazilian government for an extended period of time, resulting in the museum’s physical plant being less than ideal. Modern fire-prevention equipment was not in place, although earlier this year funding had been allocated for that purpose. Much of the recent commentary on the fire from around the world has taken the form of “Could it happen here?” worrying, contemplating what might be lost if a similar fire broke out at the Smithsonian, or the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has been an increasingly prominent global issue, both for public policy practitioners and for academics. Its roots can be traced back not only to the first museums, but also to the emergence during the 19th century of public libraries and archives as part of a larger project of liberal citizenship. Cultural heritage as a concept also has antecedents in the development of copyright and intellectual property law, first designed to protect creators in a specifically European context, but more recently extended to protect non-Western “intangible” property like music. As I have written elsewhere, the notion of “cultural property internationalism” is a shorthand for a wide variety of practices concerning the protection of “the heritage of humanity”; the establishment of UNESCO in 1945 and the Hague Convention of 1954 were very important in making the protection of cultural heritage a global issue. Even though such instruments of neoliberal power may, in practice, be somewhat problematic in addressing the needs of the world’s indigenous peoples, nobody seriously questions the idea that museums and archives may play an extremely important role in indigenous empowerment and self-determination. Witness Wolastoq singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher’s recent Polaris Prize win, which was based on his discovery of his ancestors’ recorded voices on wax cylinders located at the Canadian Museum of History.
The tragedy at the National Museum of Brazil highlights the need for collections of cultural heritage to be protected to the best of our abilities, and not to be lulled into a “it-can’t-happen-here” mindset. What is much less understood is that many countries in the so-called developing world lack museums and archives of any kind, leaving indigenous communities and researchers without a functioning repository for their collections. An anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, or linguist working in Australia, for example, can deposit her sound recordings in the archives at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, whereas a colleague working in the Solomon Islands cannot deposit her collections in any similarly-functioning archive in that country. This kind of situation led to the establishment of the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), a digital archive that provides accessioning, documenting, and digitizing services for audio-visual materials originating in the Pacific region, ensuring the digital preservation of cultural heritage materials that are otherwise vulnerable to damage or loss. However, even though digitization offers a wide range of advantages for the preservation of cultural heritage materials, it is not a magic bullet due to high infrastructure costs, instability of storage media, and the near-constant need to backup digital files and transfer to new file formats.
Museum professionals associated with the National Museum of Brazil are currently attempting to document their losses, salvage what is salvageable, reconstruct exhibits, and even recover copies of materials that visitors to the museum have made in an effort to retain some small fraction of their collections, even if only in virtual form. It is unlikely that a phoenix will arise out of the museum’s ashes. But it may be that this becomes a cautionary tale and a resounding wake-up call for museums, archives, researchers, and the communities they work with to work to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.