To the curators, collections managers, researchers, students, assistants and volunteers of the MNRJ: Thank you for working tirelessly to build, organize, research, and conserve the collections, fulfilling a duty and a trust that you and your predecessors have kept over the last 200 years. You knew the promise held by every artifact: to tell the stories of our people, to reveal the secrets of nature. Against ignorance, against a lack of appreciation, against a lack of investment, you persisted. You must have felt alone, candles in the dark.
You may feel today that it was all for nothing. I cannot know how deep is your grief. Even from such a distance I have felt bereft, lost, all of today. My friends, though, have reminded me that the world’s reaction of despair shows us there is hope. Your artifacts and specimens are gone; there is no hope for them. But, the cries that have sounded around the world may help save other museums. There would be no cries if you hadn’t succeeded in bringing the collection to the 21st century as such a valuable resource. And now, each one of us who makes choices to support or not to support a museum must today consider: what would be lost forever if “my” museum burned to the ground? Should I light the match by neglecting it?
The burning of your museum has been characterized as “history lost”. What burned last night wasn’t just the past; it was the future. Every cultural artifact or natural history specimen is a gift to the future: “This unique artifact will teach you about a person, a culture, a species, the natural world. Learn from it.” Every artifact represents an act of forethought, an investment in future knowledge, and a commitment to tangible truth.
The fact that we as a society neglect the specimens and artifacts so readily shows how distracted we are by immediate gratification, by a focus on short-term return on investment. Brazil’s inferno may have happened last night, but quiet fires are smouldering all around the world as we invest so little in these places that safeguard the tangible evidence of our past and of nature.
It’s difficult to describe to someone outside the museum community what our work means to us. We feel as if we are bound to a sacred trust for which we are merely custodians. We do not see the artifacts as belonging to us, or even to the institution. They belong to humanity. Most importantly, they belong to the future. The shock waves of the loss in Brazil will ripple though our species’ knowledge for centuries.
Not all of your efforts are lost. You managed to extract stories from many of the artifacts to publish papers, to build our understanding and to establish your careers. That knowledge remains. However, my guess is that your career is secondary to many of you. My guess is that if you could have chosen between a fire that destroyed every one of your publications and all memory of them, but preserved all of the artifacts you gathered and cared for, or a fire that destroyed all of the artifacts but left your life’s research intact, you would have chosen to sacrifice your research and career to save the specimens. We do see ourselves as merely temporary custodians of artifacts and specimens that are more important than we are, because they are for our great great grandchildren. Our great great grandchildren, we hope, will be wiser than we are, and will learn more from the artifacts than we could ever dream.
The artifacts are tangible truths, the anchors of our memory, treasures for our species’ future. We humans proudly say that our ability to understand the past and contemplate the future sets us apart from other animals. Shall we be human?
Edit: Added a tag. And here is a related Twitter thread:
It’s hard not to worry that the stunning loss of Brazil’s National Museum is being repeated in slower motion all around the world as we invest so little in these places that safeguard artifacts — tangible evidence — of our past and of nature.
In these institutions we hold objects of our cultures and of nature that remind us, that teach us, about how we and our world came to be.
Our failure represents a lack of respect for the future, for the past, and for our species thoughtfully contemplating its path.
The burning of Brazil’s National Museum has been characterized as “history lost”. What burned last night in Brazil wasn’t just the past; it was the future.
Every natural history specimen is a gift to the future: “This unique artifact of the natural world will teach you about biodiversity, about nature. Learn from it.”
Natural history specimens represent forethought and a commitment to tangible truth. The fact that we neglect them so readily shows how distracted we are by immediate gratification.
The museum’s loss is just another sign of how fragile is our wisdom and our civilization. I don’t feel grief so much as fear.