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Lessons From The Museu Nacional Tragedy

Lessons from the Museu Nacional Tragedy

The Museu Nacional in Brazil engulfed in flames. The museums collection of approximately 20 million artifacts were lost as a result of the fire. Photo: Verdade Mundial

I love museums. I love taking the time to slowly wander around and take it all in; the sights, the sounds, the smells. I love how they provide curiosity to the mind, wonder to the eyes and experience to the soul. I find few things more enjoyable than walking through a museum on a rainy day, looking at the collections that people have taken the effort to preserving. But what happens when that preservation effort is destroyed?

This question, sadly, has been at the forefront of many people around the worlds’ mind after the tragic destruction of the Museu Nacional in Rio in the last couple of weeks. The 200 year old museum was completely engulfed in fire, with around 20 million artifacts lost. This included the destruction of the oldest human fossil ever found in Brazil and a 5.5 ton meteorite discovered in the 18th century.

Museums are a wonderful asset to the communities they belong in. From the smallest of local museums put together by locals to national institutions housing the finest cultural and historical pieces a country has to offer, they are an important feature of any culture. But the aggregation of all this historical and cultural wealth does come with it’s perils. Museums can become an “all egg’s in one basket” proposition. Often this is due simply to the rarity of artifacts (there tends to be only one oldest fossil of a human found in Brazil, for example), other times it is a byproduct of a museums specialty in a particular object (Graceland, the home of all things Elvis can be looked upon as a museum in this context, and thus be susceptible to this effect). Whatever the cause of this aggregation, it can have devastating effects if tragedy were to strike.

The question then becomes “how do you mitigate the risk inherent to museums without impacting on either the public’s experience or the integrity of the artifacts?” One option would be to separate artifacts of a similar nature across many museums in many different locations, watering down the effects if tragedy were to strike; but this would affect the user experience as people would have to visit many museums to see the same amount of artifacts as they would if they were all in the same location. Another option is to house all the artifacts in one place, thus making the user experience highly valuable. This however, would require a significant investment in securing the artifacts from destruct such as fire, flood and civil unrest. Even if a government or private organization was willing to make this investment, the fact remains that humans still don’t have the capability to protect against every disaster (the Fukushima Nuclear disaster was caused by a tsunami that hit a country that is the world leader in preventing damage and loss of life as of the result of earthquakes).

The solution to the problem? Like all things involving science, the answer isn’t a simple one. It is essentially an intellectual form of the “having your cake and eating it too” problem. Most institutions (especially of a larger scale such as national museums) tend to take the middle road between the two options; placing artifacts not on exhibit at a separate location to the main museum. It’s a compromise on both fronts, but it’s probably the best option museums have to prevent tragedy from destroying their entire collections.

As for the Museu Nacional Tragedy, all that is left are the echos of what once was. Wikipedia is currently crowd sourcing as many pictures of artifacts from the collection to rebuild the collection in a digital format. While this is a noble effort that will allow generations to come to have a glimpse of what once was the finest museum collection in Brazil, the loss will remain forever more.

The oldest known human fossil found in the America’s which was destroyed in the Museu Nacional fire. Photo: Associated Press

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