Letter: Cultural responsibility in the wake of the National Museum of Brazil Fire

Charlie Coffey

Recent testimonies have indicated the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil on Sept. 2 was due in part to governmental negligence of the institute. Funding had been cut multiple times in the past decade and many reports state the museum was falling into disrepair. The sprinkler system did not work and firefighters were at a loss on how to respond to the massive fire.

The 200-year-old museum housed over 20 million items, all of which were valuable in some form to the history of Brazil, Latin America and the world. An estimated 90 percent of the artifacts were lost. While Brazilians mourn, the event is an important reminder of cultural responsibility to the rest of the world.

Whether the citizens of Brazil used and supported the national museum or not, it held their cultural heritage. It is the duty of the inheritors of any culture to provide a space where artifacts and research related to that cultural heritage can be stored and fostered. National governments are often looked toward to create or, at the very least, support those spaces. Yet with governmental attitudes toward the arts and humanities constantly in fluctuation, it is incredibly often that funding for these programs is cut.

Just last year, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs had significant budget cuts and the Art in State Buildings Act, which is the act that has led to the prolific amount of public art on Iowa State’s campus, was eliminated. The Art in State Buildings Act put forth .05 percent of governmental building budgets toward public art. Without money in the Department of Cultural Affairs, grants cannot be given to museums, artists and researchers. Without the Art in State Buildings Act, formulaic governmental buildings are built without any sort of visual relief.

Central Campus is a unique designed feature of Iowa State that sets the university apart from others like it. The green space was designed by Peter Melendy, an Iowa farmer and early functionary of the university, and is definitely a piece of our cultural heritage. Imagine if the university stopped supporting Central Campus. The grass would be overgrown, sidewalks would crumble and trees as old as the university would fall. Luckily, we have an administration that realizes the importance of not only Central Campus and other designed spaces like it, but the arts as a whole.

The decay that would occur through neglect is actually happening in cultural institutes across the state in the absence of funding. Just a few months ago, the University of Iowa announced they would be closing seven specialized centers of learning as a direct response to state budget cuts.

Cultural heritage is the responsibility of everyone who inhabits or engages with that culture. As Iowans, the institutes for understanding our culture are under constant attack and deserve our support. The neglect and subsequent fire at the National Museum of Brazil is a warning to the rest of the world that we must heed as we move forward.