Last week, the Brazil National Museum burned. It is a tremendous loss, not only for Brazil, but for the world.
As I thought about the loss, it reminded me of the role of chance in history. Many of the artifacts of history are lost, found, and preserved by chance. The manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi library were found, of course, by chance, when two brothers were digging for fertilizer in Egypt. King Tut’s tomb may have only survived intact because of a rock slide. We know very little about the people who lived within the Amazon before Columbus because the Amazon destroys almost all remains, including skeletons.
I remember when I was applying to college that one college pointed out that we only know what people in the past have chosen to tell us. But this is also a bit simplistic. We also only know what has, by chance, survived.
Future historians and scholars will mourn the loss of the Brazil National Museum, not only for the artifacts contained but also for the building itself. The building was originally the palace of the King of Portugal. Future historians who wish to study that time period will no longer be able to go to the building itself and examine the structure. They will be forced to rely on other documentation, such as written records, photographs, and videos. These will, no doubt, yield much crucial information, but it is not the same thing as being able to examine the building itself.