Analysis: museums, galleries and libraries are irreplaceable places of learning and discovery so the effect of the loss of Rio's National Museum will be felt for generations 

A fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro this week makes for grim news. The cause of the fire is still being determined, but contributing factors include the outdated former imperial palace built in 1808 which housed the museum, and also wiring and electrical issues which were of concern to staff for many years.

The museum housed one of the most important collections in Latin America and conservative estimates put the loss in the region of over 20 million items or 90 percent of the museum that spanned over 200 years of existence. The historic archive of the museum is also feared burnt, partially if not fully. This contains irreplaceable histories of the objects, their provenance and contexts, and helps detail the growth and development of the museum within Brazilian cultural and national contexts and the administration and collecting policy of the museum itself.

The effects of this loss will be felt in many ways. The museum didn't charge an entry fee thus ensuring centuries of indigenous Brazilian culture and history, as well as colonial history and Portuguese influence, was accessible and available to all. After the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil will continue to face the economic consequences of hosting and investing in these mammoth global sporting events for many years, as both events were marred by financial and corruption controversies. Culture and education investment have suffered crippling setbacks, with the now-destroyed museum receiving close to 30 percent funding reductions over the last five years.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, a report on the fire at Rio's National Museum

Museums, galleries and libraries are vital public resources and infrastructure that function as irreplaceable places of learning and discovery. They are committed to collecting, preserving and curating national histories. These are, of course, never not open to contestation and to questioning of the dynamic and modes of curation and collection in terms of dominant histories and colonial spoils. Yet they undeniably play a crucial role in the cultural fabric of societies and communities, from capital cities to rural villages.

For different but equally devastating reasons, Ireland suffered its own loss of mass cultural records of national significance. The shelling and destruction in June 1922 of the Four Courts, which acted as a record store for administrative and government records within Ireland, saw the destruction of thousands of unique records dating from the 13th century. These records charted the administration of colonial Ireland as well as critical accounts of Irish social and cultural history, including census and other demographic and cultural records of Ireland across centuries.

British Pathé's footage of the bombing of the Four Courts in 1922

Speaking in NUI Galway earlier this year at the "Archives and Public History: Witnessing the Past" symposium, John McDonough, director of the National Archives of Ireland, described the birth of the independent Irish state as being a troubling one: the state "was born into an absence" given the dearth of preserved records. The Irish nation was cut adrift from its documented past and identity. The loss has been felt ever since. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot, "they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more."

The loss to Ireland of the consolidated Yeats Family collection, which was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in London in September 2017, is a further example of preventable cultural loss. While significant and invaluable tranches were acquired by Irish institutions including the National Library, the National Museum and the National Gallery, the collection as a whole was broken up and distributed into many private collections around the globe. Such a collection of unquestionable provenance and cultural significance will never surface in such entirety in Ireland again. Dr. Adrian Paterson of NUI Galway, who campaigned to retain the Yeats collection in entirety within Ireland, told the New York Times that "[the material acquired by the Irish State] is not a victory for Ireland, but at best a fighting retreat."

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Charlie Minter, specialist in Irish art at Sotheby's, talks about the auction of love letters and poems by WB Yeats 

Our national heritage and culture is a valuable exportable commodity for the state and its reputation and standing abroad. The 2016 Irish Museums Survey of 230 museums on the island of Ireland indicates the need for consistency in approach within the cultural sector, in terms of investment in storage environments and specialised staffing in a sector which relies so heavily on voluntary staffing. The survey, published by Dr. Emily Mark-FitzGerald of UCD, showed that over three-quarters of Irish museums are staffed by fewer than 10 paid employees (76.7 percent), with 17 percent of museums have no paid employees at all.

In April of this year, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan T.D., presented details of a €1.2 billion investment in cultural projects as part of the government’s Project Ireland 2040 programme. This included €460 million priority funding for capital investment for national institutions, including critical renovations at the National Library, National Archives, National Concert Hall and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. However, Cork's Crawford Art Gallery is the only national institution outside of Dublin to feature. (The Museum of Country Life would fall under remit of its main body, the National Museum).

The loss of irreplaceable and priceless heritage does not always suddenly happen, as in the case of a natural disaster or conflict. It can be slow, gradual and omnipresent.

Heritage sites around the country are set to receive close to a third of total allotted to culture under the programme. While €40 million is earmarked for regional cultural institutes such as galleries, museums and archives, this dramatic distinction between what is considered "culture" and "heritage" can inevitably lead to a decline and eventual loss of public heritage sites and of Ireland’s distinct eco-heritage and bio-diversity, in favour of institutions in a capital city which have obvious advantage of population, tourism and transport.

The loss of irreplaceable and priceless heritage does not always suddenly happen without warning, as in the case of a natural disaster or conflict situation. It can be slow, gradual and omnipresent. Inaction can be as damaging in the immediate term.

Globally, the loss of cultural sites is further evidenced through war and conflict. The UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, a sprawling network of ancient Roman city ruins, was razed in deliberate acts of cultural and ethnic destruction by ISIS forces who were then occupying the city and engaged in a bloody conflict with Syrian government troops. In August 2015, the then head of UNESCO Irina Bokova declared the atrocities and the destruction of cultural sites in Palmyra as "a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity." The wilful erasure of cultural sites and of the right of citizens to engage with their heritage is to attack the humanity and fabric of one’s identity.

From RTÉ News, picture emerge from the recaptured Palmyra of the scale of the damage to the city's ancient ruins

As Pozzo decried life as already hurtling towards death from the moment of birth "astride the grave", it was not so much human frailty that was troubling Samuel Beckett in his play Waiting for Godot. Instead, it was the effects of the relentless passage of time and its power to reduce the present into an immediate and lost past. Similarly today, hesitation or inaction can facilitate such cultural loss, critical to the identity and fabric of the nation.

 Adding tragic irony of the destruction of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro is the fact that a sum of $5 million was set aside to renovate the building, including the installation of fire prevention and suppression systems. The project was not initiated on time. In the aftermath of the fire this week, the Brazilian government, which is facing into a national election, has promised $2.4 million to rebuild the museum. Rebuild it they can, but it will forever house an absence. The toll of loss will be felt most for generations by those seeking to learn and connect to their tangible heritage and history.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ