by Chase D. Mendenhall
One of Latin America’s most important museums burned Sunday night —destroying up to 20 million scientific and historical artifacts. It is unclear how many of the irreplaceable treasures housed at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro were lost. The museum was established in 1818 by the King of Portugal and in its early days was known as the “Casa dos Pássaros,” or House of the Birds, for its impressive bird collections.
Today, the museum was best known for its exhibits of the Americas consisting of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, minerals, aboriginal collections of utensils, Egyptian mummies, South American archaeological artifacts, meteorites, fossils and many other findings. Sadly, many of these invaluable objects are permanently lost.
Novelist Paulo Coelho described the reaction to the fire by saying, “the country is in tears.” Others have demonstrated their pain by carrying signs that say “200 years of history, 20 million items, reduced to ashes.”
We find comfort knowing that some pieces of Brazilian history are safely stored in other museums around the world. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History represents Brazil strongly in its collections, especially in the Section of Birds. We house one of the most comprehensive collections of Brazilian birds outside of Rio de Janeiro. We have 885 species of birds from Brazil, represented by 20,292 specimens—4,357 of which are on loan around the world.
Museums generate millions of data points and inform published scientific debates that are shared through networks. Today, these networks of knowledge and sharing define museum collections and exist precisely to safeguard against disasters.
Birds from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History collected from Rio de Janero include Blue Manakins (Chiroxiphia caudata), a species with one of the best examples of a cooperative breeding behavior. Males (red, black, and blue birds in background) meet in groups to dance in a coordinated, circular loop to breed with the solitary females (green bird in foreground) who raise the young on their own.
Other birds representing Brazil from the collections at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History include a pair of White-shouldered Fire-eye (Pyriglena leucoptera), a Red-necked Tanager (Tangara cyanocephala), a Saw-billed Hermit (Ramphodon naevius), and a Brazilian Ruby (Clytolaema rubricauda). Specimens are listed in the image from top to bottom.
Chase Mendenhall is Assistant Curator of Birds, Ecology, and Conservation at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.