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Opinion The destruction of Brazil’s National Museum shows we must safeguard our history and heritage

Mark O’Neill is the president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History.

On Sept. 2, a catastrophic fire destroyed Brazil's National Museum and most of its priceless collection. The images that captured the aftermath are poignant; throngs of people gathered at the gates of the charred remains of an opulent palace, which, only several hours before, had housed the country's national museum and its collection of some 20 million artifacts. Their faces are etched in anger, stunned at the seemingly complete loss of the country's national patrimony, as represented in objects that are gone forever. Interestingly, and of note, reports and the images themselves reveal they are almost all students, the youth of Brazil.

But why is this at all noteworthy, the gathering at the gates of young people in the wake of this tragedy? One reason may be that in our technologically advanced, interconnected and digital world, the authenticity of our individual and collective heritage, the iconic and tangible examples of our history matter a great deal – perhaps more, even, than they did before in our increasingly virtual experiences. They are an enduring legacy.

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People stand at the gates of the Quinta da Boa Vista park on Sept. 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through Rio de Janeiro's National Museum.

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Often, now, there is at least a tone to some of our public discourse that museums, galleries and archives are somehow static, moribund, archaic and separate from the great digital thrust and the creative economy.

Curators like to talk about “material culture,” the artifacts and objects they preserve, research and exhibit, and of the “intimacy” of the relationship between the visitor and the object on display. Many museums now describe this as part of the “visitor experience”: why visitors come, what they hope to derive out of their visit and what makes their experiences meaningful. But no matter how the visitor experience is developed and presented, many of the best experiences centre around the artifact and its raw power.

As Canadians, we are sadly usually more familiar with American and European examples of these interactions with the object: the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Michelangelo's David in Florence, or for a certain generation, Archie Bunker's chair at the National Museum of American History in Washington. All of us can conjure up an iconic artifact, or an object of veneration.

And yet our own history is chock-full of irreplaceable objects that speak to our national history and heritage. A visit to the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History will reveal several critical examples: the “First Face,” carved 4,000 years ago on a tiny fragment of walrus tusk and considered to be the first depiction of a human face in North America; the portrait of D'Arcy McGee, commissioned for him by friends and admirers but never seen by him, as he was assassinated mere days before they were to gift it to him; Elijah Harper's eagle feather, a powerful symbol of a doomed constitutional accord; and prime minister Lester Pearson's 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, to name but a few of the 1,500 artifacts on display.

Across North America, visits to museums and galleries are on the rise. There may be a desire to “reconnect,” ironically, with authentic experiences by disconnecting from the virtual. Libraries and archives know the power and enduring legacy of their collections. In addition to those researchers who regularly plumb their depths, when these institutions open their doors to the public or share their remarkable collections with museums, the visitor response is overwhelming. The recent successes of Library and Archives Canada in making its content available – not just online – is a wonderful example.

One thing is for certain: When our heritage is lost, it is lost forever. As important as they are, no digital image or recording can replace artifacts, which comprise primary evidence for scholars to understand what happened in the past. The knowledge they contain is irreplaceable.

The terrible lesson of what occurred in Brazil should be the critical need to safeguard our history and heritage, what we once used to call the “public trust,” for the enjoyment and knowledge of future generations.

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