Brazil's National Museum

Brazil's National Museum burns last Sunday.

Amid the past week’s fixation on the funeral rituals for Aretha Franklin and John McCain, most of us probably missed a tragedy of international implications: a devastating fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil.

Maybe you don’t think of a distant museum’s demise as a tragedy, but consider this: according to The New York Times, “Thousands, perhaps millions, of significant artifacts had been reduced to ashes Sunday night … The Hall that held the 12,000 year-old skeleton know as Luzia, the oldest human remains discovered in the Americas, was destroyed.”

The thousands of other treasures from around the world included an intact Egyptian mummy enclosed in its original coffin, dating to 750 BC. There was a large collection of singular indigenous material and even Roman frescoes from Pompeii. All now in ruin.

Brazil’s National Museum was a place of scholarly study and the repository of history. As a source of national pride, it represented the apex of cultural preservation. In recent years, it had fallen into disrepair due to the massive financial corruption rampant in the government. The resulting lack of funding led to dangerous neglect, including a shortage of fire extinguishers and the absence of a fire-suppression system. Despite the struggles of the museum’s staff to maintain the collections, when disaster struck, there were no resources to fight the blaze.

As we mourn for Brazil’s incalculable loss, we can take a lesson from the tragedy. Just imagine what our area would suffer if we lost the volume of history, culture and the wonders of the natural world contained in the museums within our reach: the Anniston Museum of Natural History and the Berman Museum of World History, both of which contain collections unique in this country.

Our community came together to build these museums; now and in the future we must care for them with diligence and imagination as they grow. Let us all work to insure that they are protected and celebrated so that generations to come will be able to learn from and enjoy the treasures entrusted to our care.

Josephine Ayers is chairman and publisher of The Anniston Star and a former chairman of The Anniston Museum of Natural History.