An aerial view of the National Museum of Brazil is seen after a devastating fire on Sept. 3 in Rio de Janeiro. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Like many of my contemporaries, I have adjusted may consumption of news in the midst of what appear to be culture wars, constant turmoil and official attacks on the free press. It is very hard to find objective sources of news. Newspapers are facing a huge crisis with the change in the way that Americans consume news. The combination of continuous cable television news and the Internet have made most printed documents a kind of index or commentary on the news rather than the news itself. I could go on and on about how difficult it is to get a sense of the truth in a post-truth society, but that really isn’t the point of this particular journal entry. I just want to start with the simple fact that lately, I have been spending less and less time seeking to keep up with the news.
One item in the news over the past few days that has captured my imagination has been the horrific fire that consumed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. I keep looking at the pictures of the gutted shell of the building that housed the largest collection of natural history treasures in Latin America. Countless artifacts have been forever lost. The museum didn’t only hold artifacts from Brazil, but also items from all around the world. The images of the burned out shell seem to illustrate so well the deep loss to the world of the opportunity to come face to face with irreplaceable and unique ways of gaining insight into the past.
As the grandfather of a grandson who spent his summer reading about, studying, and engaging in imaginative play around ancient Egypt, I couldn’t help but notice that among the treasures lost was a collection of Egyptian artifacts that included mummies and many associated burial items from ancient Egyptian tombs.
The loss of history is a devastating reality.
The current news cycle about the fire seems to be a round of blaming and anger over what is perceived by some to be the Brazilian government’s mismanagement and neglect of the country’s cultural heritage. Recent budget cuts have resulted in less funds to protect the places of curation of the objects of the nation’s history.
It is not just government that poses threats to the long term protection of historical objects around the world. And it is not just Brazil that is in danger of losing priceless treasures from its past. In June a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Museum of History in Aberdeen, Washington, which contained thousands of local artifacts.
In 1958, a fire at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City destroyed one of Claud Monet’s largest “Water Lilies” paintings and several other woks were severely damaged. Much of the collection survived only through heroic efforts of museum staff and the fact that the museum had the funds to be in the process of protecting its artifacts. The fire itself came from a building remodeling that included installing air conditioning to protect the collection. Some of the damage to paintings came from water produced by the building’s standpipes, a form of fire suppression. The Museum of Modern Art was considered at the time to be “fireproof,” with state of the art for the time systems.
And it isn’t just fire that poses a threat to our history. In the Netherlands, where much of the land occupied by cities is below sea level, flooding is a constant threat. Add to the natural circumstances of the country rising seas due to global climate change and water poses a real danger. In Rotterdam, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which houses a world-renowned collection of Old Masters and modern European art, has faced five floods in the past 14 years. During one of those floods water short-circuited the water pumps in the art storage area and emergency workers were forced to choose between saving rooms with paintings or the museum’s collection of historic books. Fortunately supplemental power was brought in to restore the pumps at the last minute and the entire collection was saved.
The loss of our history has devastating effects. When we do not accurately remember our past, we fail to learn its lessons. The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The role of religion is, in a large part, the curation and preservation of religious history. Because the ideas and concepts of religion are much larger than can be developed by a single generation, the failure to care for its history makes it impossible for a new generation to add depth of understanding and meaning.
Our culture is also in danger of losing priceless bits of our history through academic neglect. In search of ways to justify the high costs of education, many modern universities are dropping requirements for students to learn history. As universities become more like trade schools, focused on the pay scales of the jobs that graduates receive, they run the risk of failing to teach history. We have already produced a generation of scientists and engineers who know virtually nothing of the history and philosophy of science. They know how their branch of science functions without knowing how that information was obtained or why the study of a particular branch of science is important. They become specialists who cannot see the interconnections between various branches of scientific inquiry. They are capable practitioners of scientific method without knowing why that method is meaningful.
If our only problem was a fire-gutted building in Rio de Janeiro, we could work to protect remaining collections and redouble our efforts to provide the most secure storage for artifacts of which we are capable. However, our challenge is much bigger. We live ini societies that are less careful about accurately preserving history in more ways than the buildings that house collections. Faithfully and honestly remembering our past seems to be a lower priority in general. Defending buildings where artifacts are stored is a worthy endeavor. Teaching a new generation the importance of history is a yet higher calling.