The destruction of Brazil's National Museum is not only a loss for Brazilians but also a blow to be felt on a visceral level by all human beings. By their nature it can seem that museums and the artefacts they house have always been there, and always will be. But Sunday night's catastrophic fire in Rio de Janeiro serves as a reminder of the vital role – and vulnerability – of such institutions as depositories of our collective human memory.
It was telling that in its attempt to impose its corrupt ideology on the world, ISIS sought to erase the past through the destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq. Brazil’s Museu Nacional contained the fruits of two centuries of work by generations of scientists.
Managed by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, it housed no static collection of curios but the foundation for research in multiple fields, from anthropology to zoology. The museum’s 20 million artefacts bore witness not only to the evolution of a single nation but also to the wider human story. Here, alongside artefacts documenting the region’s prehistory, its colonisation by Portugal and the development of Rio as the Americas’ largest slave port, were archaeological collections from Africa and the Middle East.
Here too were relics of South America’s earliest people. Among the lost treasures was “Luzia”, the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman discovered north of Rio in 1975. Anthropologists are uncertain when the first humans migrated to the Americas, but Luzia may well have been among them.
Echoes of our story live on in countless traditions, from language and song to art and dance. The roots of Brazil's samba lie in the African slave trade. Feijoada, its traditional dish of meat and beans, can be traced to the Roman conquest of Iberia. But with each passing generation the clarity of such echoes fades and artefacts preserved in museums are the only fixed reference points from which we can reliably take our bearings.
One politician has described the effect of Sunday night’s fire as “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory”. But in the inferno at Brazil’s National Museum we have all lost pages from our collective story.