Mourning a Museum

A fire at Rio's Museo Nacional has sparked conversations about how cultural institutions should proceed after disaster.

An onlooker watches as fire destroys the Museo Nacional. Courtesy of Getty Images via The Express.

Up in Flames

On the night of September 2, 2018, Rio de Janeiro’s Museo Nacional burned to the ground, leaving only about 10% of the museum’s collection salvageable. The museum, built in 1818, was Brazil’s oldest scientific institution and one of the Americas’ largest museums of natural history and anthropology. Among the pieces destroyed were Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas; thousands of biological specimen; and the world’s largest collection of indigenous languages in Latin America. As the flames cleared, thousands of protestors gathered around the building to express indignation at the government’s negligence. When they tried to rush the museum’s gates, activists were met with pepper spray, tear gas, and batons from Brazilian police. The fire at the Museo Nacional–the latest in a string of several similar fires in Rio–raises questions about governmental responsibility to preserve cultural institutions, the symbolic significance of museums, and how to proceed in the wake of massive destruction.

A History of Neglect

Though the precise cause of the Museo’s fire is undetermined, the general consensus of museum officials and government employees is that the fire was the result of decades of negligence. A 1978 headline from the newspaper O Globo declared the museum “an easy target for fire.” In 2004, the museum’s then-director, Sérgio Alex Azevedo, said the museum didn’t have a fire-suppression system, “just a couple fire extinguishers.” After a citizen’s complaint alerted officials to the Museo’s fire hazards this summer, prosecutors alerted the museum’s owners and managers of the safety concerns, but no action was taken. The Museo’s lack of preparation was brutally evident on the night of the fire, when 80 firefighters from 12 different stations were forced to use water from a nearby lake to extinguish the flames after finding the museum’s fire hydrants empty. But it was not just the Museo’s fire system that was sub-par: the Museo had been faltering in general for the past several years, due to financial insecurity and mismanagement. While it had once received an annual budget of 1-1.9 million reais from the Brazilian government, it was estimated that in 2018, the museum would only receive 205,821. Financial cuts led to closures: in 2015, services at the museums were temporarily suspended after the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro had not paid for several months’ worth of surveillance and cleaning services.

A Nation’s Culture on Fire

The neglect suffered by the Museo Nacional reflects a state of crisis in Rio and Brazil writ large. In the past ten years, seven of Rio’s cultural institutions have suffered devastating fires: the Arts & Culture Theater (2008), the Butantan Institute (2010), the Memorial of Latin America (2013), the Natural Sciences Museum of PUC of Minas Gerais (2013), the Liceu Cultural center for the Arts (2014), Museum of the Portuguese Language (2015), and the Brazilian Cinematheque (2016). These losses come at a time when Brazil’s national identity is in turmoil: in the past 16 years, the country has seen two presidents impeached and one serve a 12-year sentence for corruption, while 100 high-ranking politicians have been implicated in a growing corruption scandal, and the current presidential race is riddled with rumors of fraud. Political and civil violence is widespread. In February of this year, Brazil’s president Michael Tremel asked the military to take control of security in Rio, leading to a surge in civilian arrests, deaths, and protests.

Museum Fire Conservation
Protests following the Museo Nacional fire. Courtesy of Associated Foreign Press, via Perfil.

As It Was, Where It Was?

The fire at the Museo Nacional represents a quandary many countries have faced: how to proceed following the destruction of a beloved cultural institution–whether the answer is to build an exact replica, reinterpret what once was, or simply scrap the building altogether. In some cases, the answer is to rebuild, as with La Fenice opera house in Venice, which burned down for a second time in 1996. After the fire, Massimo Cacciari, the then-mayor of Venice, vowed to restore the opera house “Com’era, Dov’era” (As it was, where it was), preserving the building’s original finery. Gianni Cagnin, La Fenice’s director of works, said the goal of the reconstruction was “to get as close as possible to what [La Fenice’s original architects] intended.” Following years of fundraising and a restoration rumored to have cost 96 million Euro, La Fenice reopened in 2003, looking much the same as it had before the fire.

The fire at the Museo Nacional represents a quandary many countries have faced: how should countries proceed following the destruction of a large cultural institution?

Meanwhile, on June 15 of this year, the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, also known as the Mack, burned down, mere months before it was set to unveil its 25 million pound reconstruction following a 2014 fire. Muriel Gray, the chairwoman of Glasgow School of Art’s board, told the BBC that the school board plans to use the Mack’s original blueprints, by renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to rebuild once more. Gray says, “This time it will be built with such knowledge and expertise that we have learned since 2014.” Many support the rebuild: Roger Billcliffe, who has written several books on Mackintosh, says he can “see no argument for why [we] wouldn’t rebuild the school of art as it was.” Julian Harrap, the conservation architect behind Berlin’s Neues Museum agrees, adding that to build a new building “would be a disgrace to our profession.” Tom Inns, the director of the Mack also supports rebuilding, saying, “it is critically important that the building comes back as the Mackintosh building.” However, many academics and architects are against creating a faithful replica of the original building. George Cairns, a management professor at the University of Queensland, argues that even if the Glasgow school did proceed using its original blueprint, the reconstruction “would not be an exact replica … given the age of the original materials and the spatiality of the original blueprint…With immense sadness, I say it is time to let go of the building, to remember it fondly through the artefacts and records that show it as it was at all stages throughout its history.”  Glasgow-based architect Alan Dunlop agrees, arguing, “We should resist the calls to rebuild it as before, ‘stone by stone’…The sad truth is that there is very little left to restore.” Dunlop proposes, “Instead of attempting to turn back time and rushing to create a sad replica, however well-crafted, I hope that people will honour Mackintosh by considering alternatives that reflect his extraordinary legacy.” It is unclear whether the future of the Mack involves building a replica, like the present-day Fenice, starting anew with a modern building, or simply abandoning the project altogether. 

Museum Fire Conservation
The Mack School after a fire ravaged the reconstruction. Courtesy of Glasgow News.

Whether the Museo Nacional will take a “Where it was, as it was,” approach to rebuilding, build a completely new museum, or leave the space where the original structure stood empty is unclear. As it stands, there are several crowdsourcing efforts currently underway to recover anything possible from the Museo. On September 4, Wikipedia tweeted, “There were over 20 million objects inside the #MuseuNacional. Did you take a photo of any of them? Help us preserve the memories of as many as we can and add them to @wikicommons.” Bruna Frenchetta, a linguist working at the Documentation Center of Indigenous Languages in the National Museum (CELIN), says the CELIN department has asked researchers and students who have photocopied anything from the museum to send copies back, but, “that’s a drop in the ocean.”

What is the value of the cultural heritage of a country? It is beyond value.

In light of Brazil’s economic and political turmoil, the fire at the Museo Nacional seems like a potent symbol for the anxieties many Brazilians have harbored about the country’s plight. As Peter Prengaman and Sarah DiLorenzo report for the Associated Press,  “For many in Brazil, the state of the 200-year-old natural history museum quickly became a metaphor for what they see as the gutting of Brazilian culture and life during years of corruption, economic collapse and poor governance.” In “Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum,” Susan A. Crane writes, “The museum is not the only site where subjectivities and objectivities collide, but it is a particularly evocative for the study of historical consciousness” (46). Museums are sites of identity-making, where objective data is combined with subjective texts to result in a larger narrative of a country within a global community. Crane adds that, “the idea of a museum disappearing or closing does not even occur to most visitors: so clearly do they seem to be a fixed aspect of the cultural landscape, so certain does their purpose seem to be.” (46) Because of their cultural significance and institutional status, museums can strike visitors as permanent, impermeable to such minute details as fire, water damage, theft, or general decay, and a disaster like a fire challenges these assumptions. The destruction of the Museo Nacional is not just a tragedy because of the material losses incurred. It represents the decay of a nation’s heritage. Tereza Cristina Trindade, a student whose professors were researchers at the Museo, said at the protests, “it wasn’t just the museum that caught on fire; it was all of Brazilian history. It was knowledge itself catching on fire.” What to do in light of such a disaster remains to be seen, but it is safe to assume that, however the Brazilian government proceeds, it will be under the scrutiny of the museum world and its citizens.

-Eve Felsenthal, 09/21/2018