“All that come by this monument protect it. For within here are stored the documents that reveal the culture of a generation, a testimony to the history of a people that knew how to build its own future.”

So states a ground stone in front of the spectacular National Museum of Brazil, now a pile of ruin and rubble after a devastating weekend fire that destroyed some 20 million artifacts spanning 11,000 years. (See the devastation.)

I remember walking through the museum’s long corridors as a child with a sense of national pride. Here was the recent and ancient history of my country, fully recorded and preserved. Stepping into the museum was like going into a time machine. We could almost hear the whispers from the many men and women who shaped Brazil’s political history, first as an empire and then as a democratic republic. Now, there are ashes and the charred remains of what lives only in memory.

Soon after closing time on Sunday, a fire started to burn at the Museu Nacional, the oldest in the Americas, housing the fifth largest collection in the world. The fire raged through the night, leaving only the hollowed husk of the former colonial palace. This is where Brazilian independence was signed in 1822, by the self-declared Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro I, the prince-regent who rebelled against his own father, Portugal’s king Dom João VI. This is where Pedro I’s son, Dom Pedro II, also reigned, and where the writers of the first Brazilian constitution met and discussed their plans to redirect Brazil’s political future.

The losses are invaluable, and include the 11,500-year-old Luzia fossil that played a key role in revising early native habitation in the Americas; Greco-Roman murals from Pompey; the sarcophagus of Sha-Amum-Em-Su, one of few still sealed; fossils of the largest Brazilian dinosaur, with many original bones; fossils of many extinct animals and plants; two libraries; and collections of botanical and animal specimens by Bertha Lutz, a central figure in Brazilian scientific and political history who specialized in dart frogs with three specimens named after her. Lutz was an active feminist, instrumental in gaining women’s suffrage.

The museum was also home to some 90 researchers and technicians, now jobless.

Although no cause for the fire has been revealed, firemen at the scene had trouble finding hydrants that worked. They had to pump water from a nearby lake to control the fire. Emotions ranging from sadness to full-blown rage are flaring, with many accusing this and previous governments of complete neglect. Ironically, the museum had just signed a contract to revamp its old and obsolete fire protection. Brazil’s minister of culture Sérgio Brandão told the Estado de São Paulo newspaper that the fire was probably initiated by a short circuit or by a home-made paper hot-air balloon, unfortunately still popular there.

I find the balloons a more likely explanation. They are always flying around the hills of Rio, causing forest fires that have devastating environmental impact. Now, of course, politicians are jumping at the opportunity, and funds for a renovation are quickly appearing. However, it’s not just the building that has been lost; it’s the vast collection that is irreplaceable. The building can go back up, but to what purpose? What collections will it store and show to the public? Political opportunism cannot recreate the past.

One of the few valuable objects that survived the blaze is the largest Brazilian meteorite, known as the Bendegó iron meteorite, found in 1784 and weighing 11,500 pounds. Forged in the fires that gave rise to the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, this one needs an even bigger catastrophe to melt down.

When a museum this large burns down, it’s hard not to think of another historical fire that involved major loss to the accumulated knowledge of the past, that of the Library of Alexandria. Although there is much controversy about the details, including who was responsible for its demise, the goal of the library, from its construction in the 3rd century BCE to the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, was to collect the written works of the world. It is estimated that at its height, the Library had somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 scrolls of papyrus, including many of the works from philosophers and writers from the Mediterranean world. No one knowns for certain how much was lost, but it is certain that the loss was vast.

We all lose any time a museum burns or its collection is destroyed. We lose our collective memory, the one solid anchor we have to our past. Being Brazilian-born, and being a scientist, I mourn the loss of our Museu Nacional. May the tragedy serve for more than political propaganda and actually change the way we think about our institutions of public learning across the word, not just as national but as international treasures, treasures that we should all enjoy and learn from as a species sharing a common planet and cultural legacy.

(Image: Felipe Milanez)
Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.