Museums must be burned or cooked to a slow boil?

On Sunday, September 2nd, 2018, we were all shocked by the images broadcasted live of the fire at the National Museum and its collection. That shock became even more relevant to the media and general population when the information regarding the possible loss of over 20 millions artifacts in the collection was divulged.

One of the most asked questions during the coverage of the tragedy was "what has been lost of importance?", one or a few items being chosen as an answer. However, the greatest loss in the fire was the knowledge that was yet to be discovered!

Museums are libraries of books and articles that haven't yet been written. They're not deposits of old and worthless things, but permanent fonts of information that must be discovered or reinterpreted under new paradigms or new technologies. Museums possess the most diverse collections gathered throughout decades or centuries and that are irreplaceable, and that allows us to tell the history of Earth, living beings, our own species, our cultural evolution and sometimes our own demise.

Museums are like anthills, built through time with the gathering of thousands of pieces, each one acquired, collected, prepared and researched by a different specialist – its little ants. And they are uncountable, the ants of Universities, Research institutes and other museums from all around the world (students, researchers, curators, professors) who constantly go to Museums to analyze, study and make new discoveries with each of those already existing pieces. The fire of the National Museum shocks the population due to the loss of its collection, but it certainly shocks far more deeply those little ants that have dedicated their lives to the construction of that archive, who sometimes know each piece and its potential to new discoveries and future projects, as well to the development of new thesis by our master and Ph.D. students.

But let us not be naive, the losses at the National Museum reflect the carelessness with culture, science and national patrimony. Authorities in different areas were eager to guarantee resources for the reconstruction of the National Museum after the fire, and we hope they actually follow through with it, but we have not heard clear propositions or the discussion of national politics regarding science, technology and the preservation of collections. Those are empty speeches. We need only to remember the recent fires at the Butantã Institute (2010), the Museum of Portuguese Language (2015) and the Brazilian Cinematec (2016).

Paradoxically to the speeches we've heard after the sad episode of the loss of collections of the National Museum, that we can blame on the carelessness and lack of resources, we find a sui generis example in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the extinction of the Zoobotanical Foundation, its Museum of Natural Sciences and its collection is state politics. Indifferent to the public manifestations of the scientific community regarding the relevance of these organizations and their collections not only to science, but to education, documentation, management and conservation of the biodiversity, the government persists in a crusade for their extinction. The match has been lit two years ago, with the dispatch of a law project for the extinction and its approval in the state's Legislative Assembly, and since then, the Zoobotanical Foundation, its Museum of Natural Sciences and their collections have been cooking in a slow boil. Surprisingly, one of the main motives for the Justice suspending the attempts of extinction is due to the lack of a plan, by the State, that guarantees the management of the collections. Tragic, isn't it?

The episode of the National Museum is sad for the students and professionals that work there, for students and researchers from all over the world that depend on the information in its collection, for all of the brazilians for the proof of carelessness for science and our history, and for the entire world due to the loss of an anthropological, archaeological, geological, paleontological, botanical, zoological and historical patrimony that does not belong to Brazil, but to the world. We hope for a union of the entire society in the construction of a National Museum true to its status and history.

We take then this cruel opportunity to discuss and review our values as a Society in relation to our scientific and cultural patrimony, as well as to demand from our governors effective measures for their protection, and not for their destruction or loss. We also hope that the outrage caused by the fire of the National Museum brings along a bit of enlightenment to the southern politicians, ending once and for all the idea of the extinction of the Zoobotanical Foundation, its Museum of Natural Sciences and their collections. A greater shame than to lose patrimony due to carelessness, is to lose it due to state politics.


Luiz R. Malabarba
Presidente da Sociedade Brasileira de Ictiologia
Coordenador Programa de Pós-Graduação em Biologia Animal e Vice-diretor Instituto de Biociências, UFRGS
English version by Laura Malabarba

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