A sad day for culture, science, history – and language diversity

A statement from Sebastian Drude, the Managing Director of The Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding

Yesterday evening, the world lost one of its major scientific and cultural institutions, Brazil’s National Museum, situated in the “Quinta da Boa Vista”, in the former imperial palace in Rio de Janeiro.

A devastating fire destroyed Brazil’s oldest scientific institution and the largest collections of the natural and human history in South America. More than 2 million objects were lost, geological, archaeological, and anthropological, including the oldest human fossils found in the Americas.

This day is also sad for the indigenous peoples and their languages. Brazil ranks among the 10 countries with most languages in the world, with between 150 and 220 languages (depending on the criteria used to distinguish language from dialect). It was one of the few countries which after the establishment of language documentation in global initiatives answered the call to establish national programmes to study, document and preserve Brazil’s linguistic heritage; with this, it was an example for Latin America and worldwide. The national language documentation project was established and carried out from offices which now burned down, because the Museum was not only a space for exhibitions and archives but also an important place for teaching and for research done by leading anthropologists and linguists. The library that was also lost in the flames was without any doubt the largest specialized library on South American indigenous peoples and languages in the continent, and in the cupboards in offices and corridors, many drawers full of important manuscripts from early expeditions were waiting for someone to study and publish them.

The destruction comes in a symbolic moment, weeks after celebrating the Museum’s 200 years of existence, in a state of abandonment which was visible for years, in the middle of a political crisis which entails an even larger threat to civil rights, especially of the indigenous population and other minorities, but also generally to culture and science in Brazil, which had seen much progress in the previous 15 years.

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