The first thing I thought of when I first heard the news of the devastating fire at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro was something I saw in one of the articles from the news outlets reporting it as the news broke: “Untold treasures lost.” The loss is so severe that it’s almost hard to wrap your head around. Museu Nacional Rio de Janeiro represents a collection 200 years in the making, and lifetimes of research brought to a halt. The collection contained everything from South America’s oldest human fossils to one of the world’s largest insect collections as well as fossils and national heirlooms that are truly irreplaceable.
I spent some time thinking about the treasures that lay inside that museum and the concept in general. We grew up with films, TV shows and even video games that put the idea of treasure hunting in our heads. Archaelogists like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft travelled the world taking back precious artifacts from the bad guys in the name of science, honor and justice—plumbing the depths of ancient tombs, pyramids and various other intriguing sites just to get their hands on ancient relics, gold, silver and mystic materials, filling our heads with fantastical images of caverns full to the ceilings with glittering gems and gold.
As adults, we might have convinced ourselves that this is the stuff of fantasy. But we’d be wrong. There are cavernous halls filled with gold, gems and priceless ancient relics right under our nose. And all we have to do is traverse Lake Shore Drive or manage the CTA trip to Museum Campus to find them.
The Field Museum in Chicago alone has a store of treasures so vast it’s hard to believe. As we’re prone to mentioning when the museum comes up in conversation, what you see when you wander the Hall of Gems or look at the amazing Mummies exhibit is only a small fraction of the treasure that fills the enormous building. And the value isn’t just in things like bronze bathtubs from Pompeii, ancient mummies or glittering gems, diamonds and jades. Every object in the Field Museum’s enormous collection tells the tale of the whole of human existence—and beyond, reaching into the outer regions of space to explore even further. In fact, many have compared the loss of the massive collection in Brazil to the devastating blow that’d be felt by the loss of the Field Museum’s own collection. Though the Field Museum does have a fully operational fire suppression system that’s tested annually, according to spokespeople at the institution, one can’t help but draw comparisons in trying to comprehend the massive loss to world culture and the scientific research community.
Institutions like the Museu Nacional represent bleeding-edge science—where people have been collaborating to discover the secrets of the universe day to day, cataloguing plants, animals, minerals and more for use in studies. Of course, it’s not just the Field that’s packed to the brim with these treasures—we’re richer than is imaginable in regards to all our fine institutions and the treasures within, from the Art Institute to the Chicago History Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and MSI, just to name a few.
“It’s an incalculable loss for the scientific community but a crucial reminder of the importance of natural history museums and our collaborations around the world,” said Jaclyn Mellini Johnston, Public Relations and Community Awareness Director at The Field Museum, when we reached out to her for the Field Museum’s commentary on this story. Just this evening, The Field Museum released a statement of solidarity and sympathy, sharing their own profound sense of loss and sharing their condolences, while stressing the commitment to work together to “use their collections to safeguard the information that can be used by the worldwide community.”
The fire in Rio de Janeiro is such an immense tragedy, and perhaps now is a time to reflect on these treasures in our own backyard, even as efforts are made to fund the restoration effort in Brazil. At a time like this, we see how important these institutions are—not just to the cities that they’re in, but to the entire world. I encourage you, in thinking of ways that you can help in the aftermath of these tragedies, to consider giving your time and money to support these institutions. You can apply to be a a docent, become a member or simply make a visit out and help support the vital work these researchers, scientists and curators do to care for, research, and display the amazing treasures you only dreamed of as a child.