We live in an age when you can virtually “visit” the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to gaze at the Egyptian Temple of Dendur — all from your phone or desktop. So do museums still matter? Are they worth actually stepping inside to see collections firsthand? And are they worth protecting for the future?

In “The Fire That Consumed Brazil’s Treasures,” the anthropologist Sarah Parcak wrote about the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 2:

The tragedy that engulfed the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night, turning up to 20 million of its holdings into dust, is an urgent reminder of the need for better safekeeping measures at museums around the world. To put what happened in perspective: It’s as if the entire collection of the British Museum disappeared, twice over, in the blink of an eye.

The fire ignited for unknown reasons. But many Brazilians are blaming their government and some have taken to the streets in protest. After years of declining federal funds, the museum staff had requested urgent maintenance funds from the country’s National Development Bank. In June, the money was disbursed but not in time to install the planned update to the museum’s fire equipment, which lacked a sprinkler system.

Right after the fire erupted, haunting images of panic-stricken museum workers with arms full of museum objects started to circulate on social media and in news outlets. One video showed some of them carrying jars of preserved specimens outside, as firefighters raced back in to save what they could.

Students read the entire Opinion piece, then tell us: 

— Why are museums important? What value do they provide a society? What value do they provide visitors?

— Does the availability of virtual reality tours, videos and photographs of museum collections worldwide make physical museums themselves obsolete? Or do these digital resources actually increase the importance of museums?

— Does visiting a museum in person and being in the same room with a painting or artifact produce a different human experience than any virtual tour can? Why, or why not?


— Are museums worth protecting? Should governments throughout the world “place a premium on these irreplaceable storehouses of human and ecological history,” as Dr. Parcak argues? Why?

— What is your reaction to the fire at the National Museum of Brazil? Do you agree with Dr. Parcak’s concluding argument?

These museum collections are nothing less than the keys to understanding not only our past but our future as well. They help us to understand how past cultures adapted to changing worlds and have much to teach us as we adjust to shifting climates, new technologies and the possibility of living in space. Their preservation should be a top priority for anyone who cares about our collective humanity.

Source: The New York Times