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The Quiet Vulnerability of Museums

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Caitlin Philippo

Center for Art Collections Ethics Graduate Assistant

Elizabeth Campbell

Director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics

Blog  •
National Museum, Brazil. From

National Museum, Brazil. From

In a recent piece in The Conversation, Denver Museum of Nature and Science curator Chip Colwell reflected on the tragic lessons learned from the fire at the National Museum of Brazil. As Colwell points out, we like to think of museums as secure havens for artistic and cultural heritage. The buildings’ architecture often conveys timelessness—think of the neoclassical columns and dome of the U.S. National Gallery of Art.

Yet museums require consistent investment and active stewardship. The Brazil fire shocked us into remembering, as Colwell argues, that “collections are never permanently safe.” What was lost? An estimated 18 million artifacts. The only recordings of now lost populations indigenous to South America. “Luzia,” a 11,500-year-old human skull and the oldest known in the Americas. Traces of local, tribal, and national Brazilian heritage, and a human patrimony common to us all. May those in positions worldwide who oversee the funding of museums recognize the importance of dedicated investment and stewardship.