Notre Dame, the National Museum of Brazil, and Weighing Cultural Losses

Notre Dame, the National Museum of Brazil, and Weighing Cultural Losses

The world watched in horror Monday as a massive fire tore through Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying large portions of the seven-century-old landmark. News channels went into special-coverage mode, newspapers around the world published impressive photos, and millions of dollars in donations for reconstruction began pouring in.

A tragedy of this scale clearly merited the attention. Nevertheless, it provides a troubling contrast with the far more muted response to a tragedy last September in South America.

The National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro held a collection of nearly 20 million items, making it the largest natural-history museum in all of Latin America. It was home to many of the most valuable cultural artifacts in Brazil, including the oldest-known human fossil in the Americas, nearly five million butterfly and arthropod specimens, and audio recordings of indigenous languages that are no longer spoken.

But a fire on the night of September 2, 2018, gutted the two-centuries-old former palace that housed the museum. Employees and firefighters rushed in to rescue what they could, but unlike with Notre Dame, where most of the valuable relics were saved, nearly 90 percent of the museum’s collection was lost. Many researchers, including the specialists studying recordings of indigenous languages, which had not yet been digitized, saw their life’s work destroyed.


Fire at National Museum of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 2018/Wikimedia Commons


One politician described the impact as “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.”

Decades of neglect were major factors in the blazes at both sites. But severe financial problems at the National Museum contributed to a host of issues that could have been easily addressed. The installation of sprinklers and other fire safety features that could have helped contain the blaze were delayed for years. When firefighters showed up, the nearby fire hydrants weren’t working. The fire’s cause, identified last week, was circuit breakers and grounding devices in the air conditioning system that were improperly installed.  

Although the Brazil fire garnered some international media coverage, Google search data shows that the conflagration received less than 5 percent of the interest that the Notre Dame fire generated. While the comparison between the two landmarks is imperfect, a discrepancy this large suggests that the loss of Latin American cultural heritage simply does not capture the world’s attention the way the loss of Western European cultural heritage does.

This lack of attention has financial consequences: Months later, the museum is struggling to raise enough money to begin construction on the sections of the facility that can be rebuilt.

Cultural heritage is irreplaceable, and the need to invest in preservation is urgent. The world is stepping up to meet this need for Notre Dame, but the National Museum has not received anywhere near the same attention—and that should give us pause as we consider the cultures we value, preserve, and rescue when catastrophes strike.