The National Museum in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, suffered a devastating fire in September that consumed one of the most important museum collections in the Americas — a national and international catastrophe the likes of which the museum world has rarely seen. The loss is incalculable not only for Brazil but for all cultures. Exactly 200 years old, the Brazilian museum contained more than 20 million objects, including rare fossils and dinosaurs and recordings of long-gone indigenous voices.
The cause of this catastrophe was the lack of fire suppression systems that could have prevented the spread of the inferno that wiped out two centuries of history in a matter of minutes. It is the same cause that damaged or destroyed more than 1 million books in a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Sadly, similar losses could happen here — or anywhere precious collections are housed to preserve a culture and a history.
The Maryland Historical Society, preparing to observe our 175th year, is both a museum and a library that holds more than 350,000 objects and 8 million documents, books and photographs. Among them is the 1624 patent of nobility from King James I to George Calvert naming him first Baron Lord Baltimore (he later founded the colony of Maryland), and the original manuscript penned immediately after the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, which became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But there is more recent history too, such as the digital archive comprising over 15,000 images from the Freddie Grey uprising in 2015.
Groups of precious objects tell the stories of those who came before us. We receive them, preserve them and hand them down to future generations, the stewards of history.
The collections of the Maryland Historical Society are protected today largely by private support. Investment by the state of Maryland is extremely modest and not on a par with that invested in peer institutions. Sadly, we are not alone among Maryland’s more than 200 history sites and museums, which have lacked state operating support for the last seven years.
But maybe there’s a silver lining in past catastrophes, if enough of us are determined to look closely at all of our cultural repositories and inspired to act on their behalf.
Are all local museums adequately protected to ensure fire won’t destroy what communities have painstakingly built? More broadly, what can a citizenry do to help struggling cultural institutions stay afloat in difficult times? In Brazil’s case, it appears the population was not inclined to support its museum, and so, without adequate government investment, the National Museum deteriorated to such an extent that nearby fire hydrants were empty when the fire started.
Where does responsibility lie to prevent destructive episodes? And what’s in store for us? When I look at the collections and buildings under our care at the Maryland Historical Society, I live with the realization that a fire suppression system might be faulty or that a roof leak could damage irreplaceable collections.
Brazil’s loss should be a clarion call for us to recognize we could lose our important institutions if we don’t rally behind them. Demonstrations for political causes, right-to-life issues and immigration policies are common. Why not marches to save our culture? Why not demand that our repositories be protected to prevent catastrophes like Brazil’s and Los Angeles’ from occurring?
American historian John Henrik Clarke said it best: “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”
All of us need to decide what we can do to preserve our past, present and future. Only by caring for symbols of the past can we ensure an informed future for our children and theirs.
Mark B. Letzer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president and CEO of the Maryland Historical Society.