Publication Date

December 13, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • Latin America/Caribbean


Archives, Public History

Mariza de Carvalho Soares, invited curator of African collections at Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro (National Museum from here on), was relaxing at home on Sunday, September 2, when her daughter called with worrying news—the museum was on fire. In disbelief, Soares turned on her television, which confirmed the inferno. “I was completely astonished and didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. As she watched the fire move through the museum, Soares could picture in her mind what was burning where and knew instantly that the fire began “exactly [where] the holdings of ethnology” that informed her work were housed. “I wanted to go there,” she says, but she knew it would be in vain: “Very early in the night, I realized that there was nothing to rescue there—all the holdings were gone.”

National Museum in Brazil

On September 2, 2018, Brazil’s National Museum and most of its collections were destroyed by a fire. Lu Brito/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

As news of the destruction spread, it emerged that the museum—which lacked a proper sprinkler system—had been struggling with budget cuts for years. In the wake of the irrevocable loss to the historical record, the academic community and the public at large mourned the museum and the potential avenues for research and scholarship that are now lost forever. Concerns about underfunding after such events, however, dissipate quickly once the catastrophe that led to an institution’s demise fades from the public view or once the monumental nature of the task of rebuilding becomes clear. But concern for lost collections should not require spectacular events like fire or armed conflict. As the case of the National Museum makes clear, collections deteriorate gradually over time as institutions lose funding and the ability to preserve, provide, and interpret collections for the public.

Soares confirmed her worst fears when she arrived at the museum the following morning. The fire had literally gutted the National Museum, leaving behind only “a plastic banner hanging on one of” the exterior stone walls of the former colonial palace. Inside, just a handful of the over 20 million artifacts housed at the museum survived.

The destruction put Soares and her colleagues in a precarious position professionally. “There are lots of people in a very difficult situation because they can’t go on with the work they were doing without the collection,” she says. Graduate students, such as the one who was working to conserve a collection of South African weapons with delicate metal embellishments, now have to stop because the materials they were working with are gone. The natural history collections and their expedition records, says Soares, provided a “history of natural history in Brazil” that is now lost forever. With regards to her own work with the museum’s West African artifacts, Soares says she must now rethink the next step in her career since she does not have another “lifetime to build something again.”

Indicative of the National Museum’s struggles with underfunding is Soares’s role as an invited curator. Before she filled that position, the museum lacked a dedicated curator for the African collections. When she arrived, Soares found that “the [African room] exhibition was old; it was old and it needed someone to take care of it.” Thus, the task of garnering funds and redesigning the exhibition fell to someone not technically a member of the staff.

Soares partially blames basic maintenance issues for the totality of the fire that consumed the palace: “Most of the things burned because there was no way to get there.” Though the fire destroyed the museum overnight, the gradual degradation of its facilities and capabilities was decades in the making. Soares explains that museums are struggling in Brazil because they lack endowments and rely on government funding that varies annually. Only after the fire did the Brazilian government move to create a new department, ABRAM, which would establish property endowments to fund its cultural institutions.

But it isn’t only cultural institutions in developing countries like Brazil, however, that are facing budget cuts. In 2017, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport published “The Mendoza Review,” which found a 13 percent decrease in the real amount of funding provided to museums by the Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. This decrease has produced issues similar to the National Museum. The report notes that many historic buildings serve as repositories and “have considerable maintenance backlogs that they cannot afford . . . yet threaten the museum’s ability to stay open.” And, where budget cuts have not led to closure, the report noted, museums were “struggling to make best use of their collections due to inadequate storage and expertise.” Sometimes, the lack of funding can entirely shut museums down, as was the case in 2012 when the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina closed after the national government withdrew its funding. The museum only reopened in 2015 with the help of museum employees who worked unpaid and external funding, including the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Any serious discussion related to preserving collections in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector should begin with these routine and relatively unexciting realities that institutions face every day. Furthermore, the conversations need to happen sooner, not after the collections are destroyed or in imminent danger. Following the National Museum fire, the International Council of Museums released a statement calling “on policy- and decision-makers worldwide, in the wake of the National Museum of Brazil disaster, to recognise the need to care for museums, to allocate adequate funding and to develop policies that will allow these cultural institutions to carry out their vital role in society . . . .” Some efforts are already being made. In 2004, the British Library established the Endangered Archives Programme to support the digitization of collections at archives in tenuous situations around the world. Included in its definition of collections at risk are those suffering from “general neglect, poor storage or damaging environmental conditions.”

As beneficiaries of collections, historians must move toward appreciating repositories for both the histories they house and the histories that they embody. Incidents like the National Museum fire cannot be viewed as mutually exclusive from the widespread issue of underfunding in the GLAM sector. A crucial step in improving funding and preventing the gradual loss of collections is supporting the intrinsic value in their preservation and organization. For historians, the benefit of working with GLAM collections comes from gaining exposure to new sources and developing new methodologies with which to engage them, says Soares. Her hope is that the fire will help demonstrate that there is “an amazing field for research for historians in museums, not just at the National Museum, but all kinds of museums.” To continue these conversations, Soares will be participating in a late-breaking session, “Archives Burning: The Fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro and Beyond” at the 2019 annual meeting.

Victor Medina Del Toro is meetings and executive assistant at the AHA.

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