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Brazil museum fire a loss 'for the whole world'

September 4, 2018

The 200-year-old National Museum in Rio has lost much of its collection through Sunday's fire. Historian Debora Gerstenberger explains what this means for Brazil and the rest of the world.

Brasilien Rio de Janeiro
Image: Reuters/R. Moraes

DW: What went through your head when you saw the news that the National Museum in Brazil had gone up in flames?

Debora Gerstenberger: It was a huge shock. Something like this shakes the whole research community. Brazil is also my specialist area — I've been there many times and I know this particular museum well. The most tragic thing is that they had around 20 million pieces stored there — a huge hoard.

Reports suggest that a large part of the museum's collection has been destroyed. What kind of exhibits did they have?

The breadth of exhibits there is enormous: objects from Egypt acquired by the Emperor [Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil 1831-1889], zoological collections, dinosaur fossils and so on. It's an incredible shock for scientists when things like this are irretrievably lost. It's still unclear exactly what has been destroyed in Rio, but every lost piece is a really big deal.

How important is this museum for Brazil? Does it have a special meaning for Latin America or even the rest of the world?

The name "National Museum" makes it sound like this is a museum for the Brazilian nation, as if it is especially meaningful for Brazil. But the objects housed in the museum are part of the cultural heritage of the world — it's not just important for Brazil. The term "nation," which was founded in the 19th century, has less of a historical importance today. These days what is more interesting is global history, and this museum had plenty of objects that were interesting from this global perspective.

Read more: Fire at Brazil National Museum engulfs 200-year-old building

Brazil Rio de Janeiro - National Museum fire
What is left of the National Museum building after the fireImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/M. Lobao

Today, historical research often puts the history of the piece itself in focus: Who bought or moved a particular object, when and why? How, when, why and in which context was this object then put on display? These questions are not only interesting for Brazil, but for the entire research community. That's why this news is so dramatic for Latin America and the whole world — not just Brazil.

Michel Temer, the Brazilian President, said that "200 years of work, research and knowledge" has been lost. But does the loss of the physical artifacts really mean that all the knowledge that came with them is also gone forever?

People obviously write about artifacts, and this writing will remain. But research methods change over time and it is almost always the case that it is best to have an original to hand when reinterpreting something using new methods. Anything that has been written about an artifact is an interpretation. It is more difficult to build something only on existing interpretations. I would also put things in perspective: It's not true that everything has been destroyed and "lost" — but it is still much better to see the original objects.

On top of that, there will always be artifacts that have not yet been described or documented. With a collection of 20 million pieces, you can be sure that a lot of them hadn't even been properly studied yet. And if they are now gone, they will never have the chance to be studied.

Why do such objects lie around without being documented or analyzed? Does it always come down to money and time?

Money and time, that's true, and it also depends on what is considered important. The pieces that are considered important during a particular era will of course be restored. I suspect that there were a lot of pieces in the Brazilian National Museum that weren't self-evidently "interesting" or obviously valuable, but which at some point in the future could have been considered valuable.

Brazil Rio de Janeiro museum fire
Fire and smoke over Rio de JaneiroImage: Reuters/Social Media

How important are "original" artifacts for a museum's visitors?

Very important. Original pieces are a magnet for visitors — that's the way it is everywhere. Although you can of course ask whether or not a lay person would really be able to tell if it's an original or a replica sitting there — probably not. But originality, something "real," that impresses people and it's something they really go for.

The museum in Rio had some 10,000 visitors per month. But aside from putting historical artifacts on public display, how much do museums do for research?

A great deal, especially those that work closely with academic institutions. The researchers in Rio work with these artifacts; research is actively taking place in the museum.

The museum essentially has two roles: firstly to advertise or promote Brazilian culture, or national culture if you like, but it is also hugely important for research. And not just for historical research — also in the fields of biology or science, theology and anthropology, perhaps even sociology and other social sciences or the humanities.

There is of course a financial question, too: Can the museum really recover from a catastrophe like this?

First of all they have to take inventory and see what has been destroyed and what is left. But of course it will be difficult, and given the current political situation in Brazil, there are probably other priorities right now. Depending on who is elected as president in September, they might have other things to worry about than spending a lot of money on restoring damaged artifacts.

Read more: Fire risks were known, says Brazil National Museum employee

If a restoration project was to be started, it would be an extremely lengthy process — and very expensive. One possibility would be to make a new exhibition from the objects that have survived. That is probably the most practical approach. But then of course the building itself would need to be repaired first of all, or an alternative building found.

Debora Gerstenberger is a junior professor of Latin American history at the Free University of Berlin.