The Tragic Burning of the Brazilian Museum

The Tragic Burning of the Brazilian Museum

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Many have deplored the fire that destroyed the Brazilian Museum. Particularly, Science magazine wrote that the tragic event could have been avoided if additional funds were available. The truth, however, is more complex. It’s clear museums are learning institutions. It’s also clear museums have an important role in specimen collection for research and society. When the subject is public health, the collection of influenza virus is of great importance, considering a virus killed more than 50 million people in 1918. In agriculture, $14 billion is lost annually to arthropod crop pests. Museum collections can provide the clues necessary for biological detectives to identify the sources of agriculturally harmful organisms.

There are numerous examples of important biological collections in museums, so it’s a mystery to me why museums have faced strong budget cuts, jeopardizing collection efforts through the centuries. It’s true the operating costs of museums can be high. The Smithsonian Institute’s budget was $856 million in 2013. But when funding is tight, legislators seem to forget that biological collections in museums can reduce the costs of studying vectors of human disease, biological invasions, and global climate change. In addition, a museum’s budget is complex. Costs go to items such as administration, infrastructure, revenue generation and art-focused activities. The federal government in the US, on average, provides less than 10% of the costs for museums, and the rest of the budget come from an average of eighteen sources, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The general population in Brazil seems to think the federal government should provide all funds to the Brazilian Museum. Also, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which is in charge of the Brazilian Museum, thinks the government should shoulder all financial responsibility. What is worse is that the university does not want to split financial responsibilities with other institutions because they think a partnership would jeopardize the autonomy of the university. And this left the Brazilian Museum underfunded.

I have more than once said that science is not a priority in Brazil, and it is also unpopular. The Science article confirms that funding for science in Brazil is getting smaller by the year. The budget of 2019 will be less than the budget of 2018. Henrique Meirelles, the person behind this budget drop and now a candidate to become Brazil’s President, fortunately is polling only at 2%. The budget of the Zoology Museum, linked to the University of São Paulo, fell from $360,000 in 2017 to ~$200,000 in 2018. The museum has a collection of 8 million animals and the largest collection of neotropical fishes in the World. Other examples include the Goeldi Museum, in the State of Pará, which is the oldest museum in the country and has more than 4.5 million items in collections. It almost closed its doors last year for lack of funds.  

Science in general is going downhill in Brazil. So while the fire is tragic, we should not have expected the museum to be an exception to these budget woes. It’s not just about museums – unless science overall recovers in Brazil other important museums will be under threat. 

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