Listen: Professor Robyn Sloggett in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Around the world scientists and ordinary citizens are mourning the destruction of millions of priceless scientific and cultural items in the catastrophic fire at the 200 year old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
The September 2nd fire broke out during the evening and burned for hours. It wiped out more than 95% of the 20 million item collection, totally gutting the former palace it was housed in.
Anger and tears
There were angry protests and people in tears at the museum gates the morning after the fire, as locals pointed the finger at government mismanagement, neglect and long term underfunding.
Marina Silva, a former environment minister and candidate in the Brazilian presidential elections, said the fire was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory”.
Almost nothing survived
The smoldering ruin is a devastating sight and it is surprising anything survived. A massive meteorite at the entrance survived – but it did hurtle through space to get to earth. In recent days pieces of a prized 11,500 year old skelton, ‘Luzia’, have been found. However, items from Pompeii that survived the eruption of Vesuvius did not make it.
Intense affection for the past
Expert Australian conservator, Professor Robyn Sloggett (AM), says the deep sadness we feel about the loss of this enormous collection is because humans have intense affection for the past as it is such a part of how we make sense of who we are.
Footage from the BBC of the destruction show the full extent of the losses. The British Museum has about 8 million items, the National Museum of Brazil had about 20 million.
The significance of the losses
Professor Sloggett, from the University of Melbourne, is the Director of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. It is the only facility of its kind in Australia.
An internationally recognised conservator herself, Professor Sloggett has qualifications in Art History, Philosophy and Cultural Materials Conservation and holds the Cripps Foundations Chair of Cultural Materials Conservation. Professor Sloggett told Stephen O’Doherty that the Brazil National Museum was significant for a number of reasons.
Digitising is not enough
“It was a scientific institution doing important research and it and others like it [which include our own Australian Museum], are important because they chart the great collecting expeditions of colonial times.”
‘They hold ‘type specimens’, the benchmark specimen of species. A quarter of the Brazilian lace bug types were in that museum and nowhere else. They are irreplaceable – digitised information is not enough” says Professor Sloggett.
A New York Times article reports on the loss of some of those specimens; “Marcus Guidoti, a Brazilian entomologist and former researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, says it’s likely that about a quarter of Brazilian lace bug holotypes, or unique specimens used to describe a species, was lost in the fire.“The Smithsonian collection on lace bugs is the biggest in the world,” he said, but he said that because of a feud between an American and a Brazilian scientist, it has “a big hole: South America.”
Effectively wiped from history
Some of the scientific collections can be replaced by collecting them again but Professor Sloggett says that is not entirely satisfactory as some of the specimens may have adapted to climate change and that factors such as the scale of destruction of the Amazon mean many specimens have become extinct.
A vulnerable building
Sadly the loss of this museum was entirely predictable with the museum, a former royal palace, in a very dilapidated condition. Professor Sloggett says it was really a matter of when it would happen, not if it would come to pass.
Perfect storm of factors
“A couple of things lead to a ‘perfect storm’. The financial situation in Brazil meant a long term shortage of funds and there have been reports since the 1950’s that a fire or other disaster was likely. The government recently spent $540 million on a new football stadium rather than the museum.”
Fire protection approved but not installed
“It is sad, and ironically so. After a three year discussion about the risks, the money for a proper disaster mitigation fitout was finally approved in June but had not been actioned” says Professor Sloggett.
Languages lost forever
According to National Geographic, Brazil’s indigenous knowledge also has suffered. “The Museu Nacional housed world-renowned collections of indigenous objects, as well as many audio recordings of indigenous languages from all over Brazil. Some of these recordings, now lost, were of languages that are no longer spoken.”
All the chickens were in one basket
Professor Sloggett says having just one national collection in one location is a risky strategy. “There is a benefit in distributing collections. The Brazil Museum had a massive linguistic collection. It has gone entirely. There were recordings of language, singing and performance. Communities can and do use what is held in museums to rebuild culture.” she says.
Could it happen here?
The Australian Museum in Sydney is a similar age as the Brazil National Museum and houses a collection of comparable size. Australian Museum Director, Kim Mackay, told Australian Geographic there are a number of safeguards in place including holding the collection in several locations, state of the art fire protection and a citizen science digitization project.
Professor Sloggett is currently running a subject about documenting and preserving new media. She says it is something we don’t think about much but we should and it gives rise to a lot of questions.
“Is the cultural meaning in the way it is formatted? Do we lose the story about the development of the technological if we save it in a different way? However the hardware is hard to maintain and the software changes all the time.” she says
Australia is at the forefront on this issue. We have so much indigenous material on iPhones, for instance, because it is quick, easy and accessible. But the technology changes all the time and versions don’t talk to each other. It is a massive and increasing problem” Professor Sloggett explained.
Just save everything?
The ease of digitising our memories and ‘saving it to the cloud’ creates another problem she warns.
“If you save everything, how to you manage it all? We need to make sure we use tools like facial recognition and good file naming so when you load up information you can access and understand it later” she cautioned.
War and erasing cultural identity
Asked about incidents like the deliberate and wanton destruction of heritage in conflict zones in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Professor Sloggett said “The the world has a history of destroying collections in conflict situations because of a desire by invading forces to see to the destruction of cultural identity.”
“It shows us how significant cultural material is. During war, we see there is an attempt to decimate a population. But you don’t just destroy people; you aim to take away the very evidence of their existence.” she explained
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