Brazil’s Museu Nacional And The Fragility Of Scientific Infrastructure

By now, you might have heard about the calamity that is the fire that essentially destroyed Brazil’s Museu Nacional, which held over twenty million items, making it one of the largest collections (perhaps formerly) in the world. According to early reports, the destruction includes the world’s best pterosaur collection, along with most of the entomology, arachnology, anthropology, crustaceans, and the historical archives; the entire linguistics collection, including languages that are no longer spoken was also destroyed. Needless to say, these are irreplaceable, especially the type specimens.

One way to help is to send the Museu Nacional any photos you have of exhibits there to: museu@gmail.com (the museum has requested this).

While others are far more qualified to comment on what this means for and implies about the Brazilian political system (none of it good, if my Twitter feed is any indication), this serves as yet another reminder of how fragile our scientific infrastructure is, a point I’ve made many, many, many times. Scientific infrastructure isn’t sexy, but it is vital:

One of the ridiculous things about many depictions of science in TV and movies is the notion that there’s this huge infrastructure: shiny labs (which are always neat and spacious), high-tech this and that, and an army of workers to solve a problem. The reality is that much of our scientific knowledge in any subdiscipline is held by a few people who are operating on shoestring budgets with inadequate resources. To put it bluntly, we often lose considerable knowledge and materials when an older faculty member or researcher dies or retires (in my own subdiscipline of microbiology, there are several valuable collections that would be lost if a single freezer broke for an extended length of time).

In the U.S., the major museums are pretty well protected (e.g., I’m somewhat familiar with the Smithsonian’s procedures, and they’re pretty good). But there are a lot of smaller collections that simply aren’t well protected–hell, it’s difficult enough to adequately collect and store specimens, never mind protect them from catastrophe or digitize them (or, ideally, both). If only there were an entity that can create and spend money by fiat… But I digress*.

Because there’s a real cost when we lose these collections–and it transcends national pride (if not national duty):

When we lose collections, we lose the past. We lose the ability to place in context what we have discovered today. And once these collections are gone, we never get them back. There is a lot of research that requires these collections–think of all of the news articles you read about someone isolating ancient DNA, or looking at changes in organisms from a century ago. Without biological collections, that science never happens.

Enough of us never seem to understand how important these institutions are until we destroy them.

*Nice things, we can’t have them.

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3 Responses to Brazil’s Museu Nacional And The Fragility Of Scientific Infrastructure

  1. Art says:

    This is a huge, absolutely huge, and largely irrecoverable, loss.

    Sadder still because it could have been stopped, with a bit of luck or clairvoyance, with a bucket of water or sand. Or, lacking any supernatural assistance, a simple system of compartmentalization and sprinklers using technology from the last century.

    Lesson one is that scientific resources and assets need to be protected. This doesn’t require new technology or advanced techniques.

    Second, if resources are not available to protect collections they need to be dispersed to limit the scale of loss, and prioritized to give the little available protections to irreplaceable items.

    Neither of these is without problems. Water used to suppress a fire can destroy specimens and dispersing a collection can open it up to pilferage. Both make access more problematic. All of these issues can be worked around. None of them justify leaving a collection unprotected.

    It is a sad day.

    • David Taylor says:

      The Museu Nacional’s plan for various forms of protection, including fire suppression, was finally funded and was to start implementation in October.

  2. Pamela Blittersdorf says:

    Most of us can’t house a collection. But is there any organization that recruits volunteers to digitize?

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