Too often museums are places we only pass on our way to something or somewhere else. And while we might give them only cursory thought, we might want to reconsider exactly what they are. They are, in fact, us. They are our town’s, our city’s or our world’s collective family album. They tell our history, explain why we are who we are or simply fill in the blanks to questions that make us scratch our heads. We rarely consider what would be lost if tomorrow they were gone.
But in Brazil, a nation whose national museum was recently destroyed by fire, loss is foremost in the country’s mind. More than 20 million artifacts were lost in the September 3rd blaze that consumed the nation’s premier historic repository. With its last embers now stone cold, curators can only walk through what once was as they try to figure out what of the nation and the continent’s treasures are gone and what can be salvaged.
For museum curators---of major or even smaller and esoteric collections, as well---the Brazil National Museum fire was more than a loss a continent and many time zones away. “My heart went out to that curator,” said Victoria Miller, curator of Pueblo and Southern Colorado’s Steel Works Center of the West Museum. The Pueblo collection tells the story of how steel shaped Pueblo and reinforced a backbone to a city and an entire region.
“We are the repository,” said Miller. “What we have is the collection that was created by the CF&I,” the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, as it was more formally known. Housed in three buildings, including the mill’s long-ago dispensary, is a history that spans 121 years of steel, steelworkers and the town that steel built.
Included in the collection are artifacts that include everything from ‘brass checks,’ the metal identification badge steelworkers showed to gain entry each shift to documents that tell the story of 1914’s Ludlow Massacre, the labor war waged between workers and management, that resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen miners, wives and children.
For Michele Koons, Curator of Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, the Brazil fire left her numb. “It was just horrifying, so sad to lose all of that history,” she said in a brief conversation as she drove north from New Jersey to New York where she had appointments to keep. “What hit me hardest,” said Koons, who has done a lot of research in South America, “was the loss of all the audio recordings of the indigenous languages that are not even spoken today. There’s nothing that anyone can do to get them back.”
It could be months or, very likely, longer before a true inventory of what was lost in the Brazil fire is known. What is clear is that little of its collection can be replaced. It was the continent’s crown jewel where frescoes from Pompeii, Egyptian sarcophagi, indigenous drawings and ceramics, pre-Columbian statues and a unique collection of pterosaurs---flying reptiles that once may have drifted effortlessly over the Amazon jungle---once were housed. But today, this amazing history sits in its own ignominious pile of ashes.
However horrific the fire and loss were, it may not have come as a complete shock. “This was an announced tragedy,” Ana Lucia Araujo, a Brazilian-born historian at Howard University, said in an Atlantic Magazine interview. For years, Brazil’s national museum’s infrastructure had been neglected. Money for basic improvements, including things as fundamental as state-of-the-art fire systems, had been cut or dramatically underfunded. Stopgap measures, including crowdfunding to pay for upgrades, were employed to address other things, including termite control to protect fossil relics.
As the country changed from administration to administration, one thing held true; money to protect the museum and its collection would not be forthcoming. Curators from the country’s other museums, libraries and cultural centers across the country are facing the same bleak reality.
With a national treasure going up in flames, museum curators across the country and, very likely, beyond, went to work the next day with a single thought in their minds: How safe are we from the same tragedy?
“One of my reactions,” said Koons, “was feeling relieved.” The Museum of Nature and Science has state-of-the-art mechanisms in place in the event of a fire. “I am very appreciative that we have that level of protection for our collection.” Yet, Koons, like so many who do her job in the nation’s museums, libraries and centers of culture, acknowledges that nothing is foolproof.
In Pueblo, Miller also went to work following news of Brazil’s fire and immediately took inventory of her center’s protective measures. “A fire can happen in any building, at any time,” she said. But whatever fail safes that can be incorporated into building safety have been addressed. “Our buildings are brick and stucco that are 24 inches thick. They’re waterproof, fireproof and airproof.”
Though charged with responsibilities that differ dramatically in scale, both Miller and Koons are similarly protective of their collections. Each has items that are irreplaceable and priceless.
“Everything in our collection is priceless,” said Miller, “because it helps tell the story of the CF&I.” Included in the collection are the company’s first articles of incorporation and more than 100,000 photographs documenting the stories of the foundation upon which the city and region were built. “Everything we have is unique, one of a kind,” said Miller. Replacing anything in the museum, she said, would is not a burden she even wants to think about.