When a Museum or Library Burns

When a Museum or Library Burns September 4, 2018

The ETC Blog is one of countless outlets that have talked about the terrible fire at the Brazil National Museum. Few give thought to the precariousness of such treasure troves of historical knowledge. Even those of us who do family history research, and worry about the possibility that a fire in our own home might destroy forever some unique photo of or document from or about an ancestor, put out of our mind the thought of something like that happening to a collection that impacts not one family but a nation and even all humanity. Even those of us who have done research into Irish ancestors, and know how the effort to move records from local parishes to Dublin for safe keeping backfires, still like to pretend that something like that won’t happen again.

But then it does.

The fire at the museum in Rio is a reminder of just how important digitization and other similar archiving projects are. Those of us who study ancient times depend on materials that we can only access digitally, and while it is ideal to have the original objects and texts, copies are better than nothing. One can also make a comparison with textual criticism. Would we rather have the original copies of the biblical writings? Most certainly. But perhaps someone put those originals in a museum in ancient times, those originals that are now lost to us, and the museum burned to the ground taking the manuscripts along with it. More likely they just fell to pieces and became trash. Either way, if no one had ever made the best copies they were able to, we would have nothing. And if we could have only digital images of those copied manuscripts because the building they were in burned to the ground, we would be grateful to at least have the photos and other such images.

Have any readers of this blog been to the museum in Rio that burned down? What did you see there that it is particularly heartwrenching to imagine gone forever? If you have never been to the museum in Rio, what object in another museum would you feel particularly impacted by the loss of?

On a related note, I was pleased when, watching a video about Hamburg University’s research on handwritten texts, I saw some shots that looked very familiar – right out of slides from last year’s SBL session on Digital Humanities work on palimpsests!

"Carrier: My argument completely depends on Paul thinking God somehow got sperm from David and ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"There are way more linguistic problems with Carrier's silly "cosmic sperm bank" argument than that. ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"Thank you for the reply Dr McGrath, I am very much aware, and have read ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"Ehrman is an atheist, as was Casey. Both are convinced that mythicism is bunk and ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster

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  • John MacDonald

    One of the places I would go to study if I could go back in time and had a better command of ancient languages would be The Royal Library of Alexandria (Ancient Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt). – which, of course, fell victim to one of the most famous library fires in all of history.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      Oh, yes, indeed! ^_^ If we ever get around to building a working time machine, imagine how much better everything would be if we could take all of the Alexandria Library stuff, & transport it safely to the future! 😀 Wouldn’t that be wonderful? 🙂

  • Myles

    The roots of christianity include the destruction of many ancient libraries and texts. One of your archbishops even declared that if a text approved of the new religion; superfluous, burn it. On the off chance that it might be contradictory or might be contemptible; destroy it and then burn it.
    Perhaps the Mayan discovered the cure for cancer. Perhaps some other civilization discovered the way interstellar travel could work. Who knows!! Christians burned everything from thousands of other cultures.
    Your foolish lament is moronic.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      You don’t know anything about this person, or his theology! Kindly stop attacking him, you…you HORRID, rude, mean man! >:-(

      • Myles

        I don’t care what fairy tales anyone believes in, I expect honesty and decency.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      Oh, & you think Christians are the only ones that have burned things? So have atheists–for instance, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution! Don’t go pretending that just because you’re atheist, that automatically makes you better than us, ’cause it doesn’t! (That REALLY steams my lobster!)

      • Myles

        Wade through the blood of two thousand years and deny everything. Attack the first so-called atheist that comes to mind and hope christianity doesn’t come off second best.
        You poor thing.
        Any adult with imaginary friends needs mental health care.

          • Myles

            Rewriting history may be important for religious freaks but real historians seek out verifiable facts , not hearsay or rumours. Truth is important but apparently not for the religious.

          • Could you not be bothered to click on the “about” tab, or did you not ever click through to read the post at all? https://historyforatheists.com/about-the-author-and-a-faq/

          • Myles

            The first few paragraphs were enough. “Garbage in, Garbage out”.
            Have you no shame? Pushing that evil nonsense on humanity is destroying our world. You may think you have an after-life but Ecclesiastes 9:5 really exposes your scam. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost.” Can you say SCAM?

          • What makes you think that I posit an afterlife?

            Clearly reading the first few paragraphs was not enough to clue you in that you were reading an atheist. And reading a few paragraphs is never enough to have a firm grasp of historical evidence.

          • Myles

            You can waste all the time you want.