What do you do when your archive burns down? That’s a question that I, as well as thousands of researchers in Brazil and across the globe, faced on Sunday, September 2, when Brazil’s Museu Nacional (National Museum) in Rio de Janeiro went up in flames. The largest national history museum in Latin America, the Museu’s collection housed over 20 million items (more than double the size of the British Museum). Pieces included the Bendegó’s meteorite; the 11,500-year-old skull of Luzia, the oldest human remains found in the Americas; Egyptian mummies; Greek artifacts; a dinosaur skeleton; and countless indigenous artifacts, language recordings, and cultural material. Presidential candidate Marina Silva called the fire a “lobotomy of Brazilian memory.”
Not all was lost. Researchers believe that some fossils housed in metal cabinets could have withstood the fire, although no concrete information is yet available. Technicians saved 80 percent of the mollusk holotypes (specimens that are the global references for a given species). Moreover, the vertebrate and herbarium collections and the museum’s library of over 500,000 books were unaffected (they remain housed in a separate building). The meteorite stands intact, and firefighters rescued a skull, which researchers hope is Luzia’s. A small digital collection exists online.
I was at the Museu at the end of July, finishing up some research on Brazil’s famous feminist and scientist Bertha Lutz (1894-1976). The article I’m co-writing with Ellen DuBois focuses on the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, a lesser-known period of Lutz’s life.
After Lutz served as an official Brazilian delegate to the United Nation’s founding conference in 1945, she continued her national and international feminist organizing, culminating with her role as an official Brazilian delegate to the International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in 1975, just months before her death. Our article was in the revise-and-resubmit stage, and the reader reports had asked us to go back to the archive to further nuance our argument about the interconnected nature of science and feminism in Lutz’s life.
While at the Museum, I took pictures of only a small fraction of her collection, telling myself I could always come back to do more research in the future. I only had a few days, so I breezed through Lutz’s efforts to organize her father’s scientific papers (Adolfo Lutz, a famous epidemiologist), her own herpetology collections, her correspondence with bureaucrats, her scribbles on the mundane parts of her life — shopping lists, car repairs, the price of air conditioners. The archives weren’t going anywhere, or so I told myself. I found out that she had spearheaded efforts to work on malaria control in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s.
This was something I wanted to research in the future, another article perhaps. So I didn’t photograph those documents either. The rooms that housed the historical papers of Brazil’s leading scientists are visible from the devastating pictures of the fire’s aftermath. There’s nothing there. While reporting hasn’t mentioned these collections, I’m sure they’re all gone. They were kindling for the fire.
Officials still haven’t determined the cause of the fire, although they know where it started. For now, this information hasn’t been released to the public, and police have not discarded the possibility of criminal activity. Employees tell of a faulty electrical system in need of repair, and reporting shows that the conservative government of Michel Temer has slashed the budget.
In the last few years, the Museum only received 60% of its allotted funds. The 2017 budget of $444.5 million reais was nearly $150 million reais less than what the Chamber of Deputies (equivalent to the House of Representatives) has spent on espresso coffee and machines since February 2015. But the structural problems behind this tragic fire did not materialize in the last five years. Yes, the recent budget cuts exacerbated an already fragile situation, but the government had never fully renovated the building in its 200-year history, and museum staff had recognized major existential threats to the collections since the early 1990s. The museum didn’t even have a sprinkler system.
So what do you do when your archive burns down? Wikipedia is calling for researchers to upload their photos to Wikicommons. You can also contact Museum staff, who are collecting information to create a digital archive of whatever researchers have photographed. There’s no doubt that we need a digital archive of what we have, but that’s not ever going to bring back the Museum’s collection or the experience of working with original specimens or documents.
As historians, I know we all relish looking at the original document, taking it out of the box carefully, seeing the handwritten notes in the margins, the tea stain that marks the right-hand corner. The seeing, feeling, smelling of historical sources is the stuff that many of us live for. It’s what we talk to our students about. That experience — that was also burned on September 2.
As an historian there is so much loss to mourn. The list, going all the way back to the great library of Alexandria, is a long one indeed. It includes the medieval library of the University of Louvain (burned twice – once in each world war) the fabulous Hanlin library in Peking with its centuries of civil service exam essays on all aspects of Chinese history and culture – burned during the Boxer Rebellion, the destruction of the monastic libraries by Henry VIII. The list goes on and on. Digitizing such resources is of course essential but at the same time we must remember that digital archives are even more fragile than books. They can decay with time. A single hack can wipe them out. A totalitarian regime can manipulate or even delete them and they are subject to tech evolution that can make them obsolete and unreadable. Some new way of preservation is essential.