Ash is still blowing through the park surrounding Brazil’s National Museum, which continues to tally its losses. According to the deputy director at the museum, a 200-year-old Rio de Janeiro institution, the fire that burned down much of the building two weeks ago may have consumed 90 percent of the collection.
That’s thousands, maybe millions, of objects — incomprehensible numbers.
It’s always easier to think in smaller terms, specific examples. The museum preserved documentation of indigenous languages for which there are no longer any living native speakers, as The New York Times just reported. Every one of those records apparently went up in smoke, taking with it a culture, a civilization, the story of a life, a chapter of us.
Because that’s what museums like the National Museum ultimately do. They piece together the narrative of who we are, where we come from, where we belong — in the universe, on this planet, as nations, communities, individuals.
For generation after generation, the National Museum, a repository of science, art and history, has been where parents passed down to their children what it means to be human and, more specifically, what it means to be Brazilian. A former colonial slave traders’ home that was later turned into a royal palace, the building itself was the site of key moments in the country’s history, part of the national narrative, and therefore a place of deep symbolism and pride.
It’s no wonder that the fire became an instant metaphor for the country’s decline. While it was still burning, crowds gathered at the museum gates. Afterward, a group of students issued a call for any photographs, videos, even selfies taken with the collection and in the exhibition spaces, to create a digital archive, a kind of virtual bulwark against forgetfulness.
“The National Museum was part of the childhood of each of us,” explained Luana Santos, one of the students organizing the effort. Thousands of images have already been uploaded.
But that very effort reiterates how grounded the real, physical museum has been in the lives of Cariocas, as Rio residents are called. Never a big tourist attraction, the museum always drew mostly locals. Its neighborhood, São Cristovão, lies on the working-class northern fringes of Rio, close to the favela of Mangueira, with its famous samba school. It is miles from the posh beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, to the south, and even farther from neighborhoods like Barra da Tijuca and Recreio, where Rio’s wealthy residents congregate and a sprawl of gated communities and shopping malls conjure up Houston or Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
That’s not where the city’s working classes gather. On weekends many retreat to the romantic 19th century park by the French landscape architect Auguste Glaziou, where the museum is situated, a free public space where families can picnic and lovers can stroll. A visit to the museum is often a ritual for parents, grandparents and children, a chance for the kids to discover dinosaur bones and South America’s oldest human remains and for adults to reminisce about the first time they saw a meteorite.
But during recent years, residents have watched government officials funnel billions toward the Olympics, the World Cup and projects like Santiago Calatrava’s Museum of Tomorrow, ignoring public services and bedrock institutions like the National Museum, whose cash-starved curators, even before the fire, became so desperate that they took to crowdsourcing funds to repair tattered displays.
Writing in the newspaper El País, Washington Fajardo, an architect and planner from Rio, described Brazil as “a happy prisoner of modernity.” His point: The country’s political and business leaders, grasping and reckless, have fixated on projecting Brazil as a global front-runner and neglected the country’s cultural patrimony.
There may be an element of racial politics to this. Told in school to think of themselves as a blend of indigenous, European and African cultures, many Brazilians have difficulty embracing their mixed origins. The National Museum was the leading custodian of this identity, the advertisement and repository for its history and truth.
“All of science will suffer from the loss of its collection, but in Brazil the most profound suffering may well be the loss of history and heritage,” said Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Institutions like ours are ultimately about where we as people, as societies, fit into the larger scheme of things — in terms of past and future, in terms of each other,” she said. “And what people take away from the museum is often not just a lot of information but something deeply spiritual, emotional.”
By chance, this past weekend two visitors from Rio, Adilson Cardoso Silveira, 45, and Wilson Rodrigues, Jr., 39, were in New York, snapping selfies in front of the Museum of Natural History’s Willamette Meteorite.
The meteorite crashed to Earth thousands of years ago in what is today Oregon. Long before Europeans arrived, it became an object of worship for the Clackamas, who are now members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community. They named it Tomanowos. Representatives of the Grand Ronde still trek to the museum each year for a ceremony with Tomanowos.
At the mention of the Rio fire, Mr. Cardoso put his hand on his heart. He and Mr. Rodrigues nodded when asked if they ever visited the National Museum. “Since I was a boy,” Mr. Cardoso said.
It happens that among the only artifacts known to have survived the fire last week is Brazil’s version of Tomanowos: a meteorite nicknamed Bendegó.
Bendegó made it through the fire of earth’s entry, and now through another conflagration. I pointed this out and Mr. Rodrigues smiled.
As if unconsciously, he gently stroked Tomanowos.