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Brazil National Museum Gutted by Inferno

Publishing Date : 11 September, 2018

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Learning about the incalculable destruction caused by a massive fire at the National Museum of Brazil this week was very painful. Not only do I care because of my professional background, but also because my country (Botswana) is endowed with rich natural heritage, which heritage is also susceptible to the risk. 

This museum is strategically located inside the famous Quinta da Boa Vista Park, at the capital city, Rio de Janeiro. The museum was built in a place that served as the residence for the Portuguese Royal Family before it was assigned for use as the national museum in 1892.The UNESCO listed this same building as part of Brazilian National Heritage early in the 1930s. It is reported that the museum held a vast collection with more than 20 million objects and served as one of the largest museums of natural and anthropology in America.

Essentially this museum held invaluable national heritage in the form of artifacts, and documentary materials. The funding and management of this institution was entirely the responsibility of the government of the day in Brazil. Reports suggest that the federal government of Brazil executed budget cuts that started a few years prior to this terrible incident, which effectively affected the functioning of critical government functionaries such as the fire department. The National Museum, which falls under the department of Culture, was not spared from this misfortune.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known but according to reports, there were plenty of highly flammable items inside the building that could have triggered the blaze. Reports further indicate that the museum was only equipped with sprinkler system as the only disaster preparedness strategy. Whatever the case, the incident was very unfortunate and we empathize with our Brazilian counterparts. This is the Museum which recently celebrated it’s 200 anniversary this June. Imagine 200 years of work, research and knowledge going up in smoke, literally and figuratively!  

Is Botswana documentary heritage safe?

This revelation about Brazil and the apparent acute mismanagement of a national heritage such as the National Museum should serve as a wakeup call to Botswana civil society - de facto owners of all the national heritage collections. Brazil probably ranks higher than Botswana in terms of infrastructural development, and is thus fitting to assume that they should be the standard bearers in many areas including preservation and conservation of national heritage, administration of national heritage institutions.

This is so worrisome because it confirms the general conception that when it comes to national heritages such as museums, libraries and archives many governments have a passive attitude that in many cases translates to little or no funding for these institutions of knowledge. But what good is a nation without these institutions? In Botswana and South Africa, academic studies by Venson, Ngoepe, and Ngulube confirmed that (i) funding for national archives institutions is never given any priority, (ii) these institutions do not have any separate budget and compete with other departments/divisions, for resources allocated to the parent ministry of Culture.

Given this state of affairs, Botswana should go an extra mile in ensuring that we protect our national heritage as a country - namely the archives, libraries and museums. Talking of archives, we have three records centres in Gaborone, Kanye and Francistown. The adequacy and preparedness of these facilities to disasters such as fire should be subjected to thorough review, by independent experts. Fully operational and resourced fire stations should be in place across all strategic locations in the country in so far as conservation and preservation of our archives, libraries and museums is concerned. 

News reports indicate that following that disaster in Brazil, the civil society marched the streets of Rio in protest. This reaction by the Brazilians is a little too late, and no amount of demonstrations can replace the invaluable collection that was lost. This is a clear wake-up call that says the civil society must demand the government of the day to account for all national heritages, as political will or lack thereof, makes all the difference in these matters. Many governments tend to relegate issues of national importance such as preservation of national heritage, thereby exposing them to disasters.

As the owners of these heritages, the society has a responsibility to demand that these institutions are protected. Let the protection of this natural heritage be our collective responsibility as governments, leaders, professionals and society lest we lose our archives, libraries, museums and animals in the national parks and sanctuaries!
Amidst this sadness, T. H. White would say “the best thing for being sad is to learn something”, as we slowly but surely recover from this debacle to introspect and plan ahead.

SHADRECK BAYANE is a Records Management Consultant & Archival Scientist



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