On September 22nd, Brazil’s “oldest and most important” (Phillips) historical and scientific museum was consumed by fire, and a majority of its archive — which consists of 20 million items — is believed to have been destroyed.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Although the exact cause of the fire is unknown, many Brazilians were quick to blame their government for not providing the museum with enough federal funding in the past few years. In fact, “the museum staff had requested urgent maintenance funds from the country’s National Development Bank…the money was disbursed, but not in time to install the planned update to the museum’s fire equipment, which lacked a sprinkler system” (Parcak).

Maria Silva, a former environment minister and candidate in October’s presidential elections, said the fire was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory” (Phillips). Luiz Duarte, one of the museum’s vice-directors, told TV Globo, “It is an unbearable catastrophe. It is 200 years of this country’s heritage. It is 200 years of memory. It is 200 years of science. It is 200 years of culture, of education” (Phillips). Even Brazil’s president, “who had presided over cuts to science and education as part of a wider austerity drive,” tweeted about the fire, mourning all the “years of work research and knowledge” that had been lost (Phillips).

Besides experts and politicians, thousands of civilians also took to social media to express their horror and dismay. One civilian, going by the username incunabula, eloquently summarized her anger — which is shared by many others — in her tweet: “[The picture above] was Rio’s Museu Nacional before tonight’s fire. Reports are that it was entirely destroyed in little more than an hour. That something like this could happen to a building of this importance is a staggering institutional and governance failure.”

screenshot of a tweet from @incunabula

An unpopular minority of people, however, are using this disaster to start a conversation. As journalist Michael Gonchar challenges, “We live in an age when you can virtually ‘visit’ the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to gaze at the Egyptian Temple of Dendur — all from your phone or desktop. So do museums still matter? Are they worth actually stepping inside to see collections firsthand? And are they worth protecting for the future?”

Most people can agree that, although we are in a tech-driven era, museums are undoubtedly still important. There is a substantial difference in seeing the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre, gazing in awe at the individual brush strokes da Vinci meticulously painted, and in seeing it on a phone screen at mid-brightness. The two experiences are incomparable. Moreover, it is easy to forget that museums are not simply displays of artifacts. The research that goes on behind closed doors — losing such valuable work would be an insurmountable loss.



  1. Sarah Parcak, “The Fire that Consumed Brazil’s Treasures” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/opinion/fire-brazil-national-museum.html
  2. Dom Phillips, “Brazil museum fire: ‘incalculable’ loss as 200-year-old Rio institution gutted” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/03/fire-engulfs-brazil-national-museum-rio
  3. Michael Gonchar, “Are Museums Still Important in the Digital Age?” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/learning/museums-protection-internet.html?rref=collection%2Fspotlightcollection%2Flearning-current-events&action=click&contentCollection=learning&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=collection