This week, as the National Museum of Brazil filled with fire, the world learned about its vast holdings: over 20 million pieces of our history since the Pleistocene. These items—most of them now destroyed—included sarcophagi from Egypt, frescos from Pompeii, one of the oldest human skeletons found in Americas, and the largest assemblage of Brazilian archaeological material in the world. Collectively the individual items formed collections resulting from 200 years of curation, research, and care by people whose work illuminated and preserved our past. In the wake of the conflagration, there is dawning despair about further losses that can’t be counted or measured…the loss of knowledge that still hasn't been explored.
I know first-hand how crucial such collections are. As a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., I conduct research on collections in the Division of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology. My primary responsibility is human skeletal remains, and my major research focus is health. Anthropological collections from around the world and across millennia inform us about the etiology of diseases, the evolutionary history of pathogens and microbiomes, and the origins of human activities (such as livestock production and agriculture) that drive the emergence of new diseases today. They are irreplaceable scientific resources with unique benefits for the study and advancement of planetary health and enormously valuable for science and society in general.
I frequently experience moments of awe in my professional life. Recently, I had one of these moments not amid the remains of people themselves but in a bird collection that is no less informative about humanity.
I arrived at this particular moment by way of the museum’s newest exhibit, “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World.” As the lead curator of “Outbreak,” I had the opportunity to show the exhibit to the head of a non-governmental organization in vaccine development and pandemic preparedness. Before walking through the gallery, we discussed the tremendous potential for “Outbreak”to increase public awareness about the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental health (an ecological concept also known as “One Health”) and catalyze conversations about the human factors of disease emergence and spread. During the three months since the exhibit had opened, it was encouraging to see the museum’s visitors (who can number up to seven million people a year) engaging with and enjoying its interactive games, maps, videos and three-dimensional displays about a variety of zoonotic viruses.
We slipped into the crowd. In the “Spillover” section, which features Nipah virus, we discussed the progress of vaccine development for this deadly virus that originates in fruit bats and recently made headlines due to an unprecedented outbreak in southern India. In the “International Spread” section, which features SARS, we marveled over the successful global coordination that “put the genie back in the bottle” in 2003, when the virus spread internationally from a live animal market in China. In the “Global Pandemic” section, which features HIV/AIDS, we reflected on four decades of science, activism, health care and policy change that led to HIV treatments that now prevent transmission of the virus and could finally end the pandemic in the absence of a vaccine.
Finally, in the “Searching for Solutions” section, which features influenza, we examined specimens from Smithsonian collections that have been used for infectious disease research, including a human skull, a tray of pinned mosquitos, and a jar containing a bird collected in 1916—a specimen that was part of an investigationinto the 1918 pandemic strain of influenzaand one of the millions of specimens in the museum’s bird collection featured in the iconic photonext to it. Appropriately, these avian archives were our next stop.
We parted with the crowd. I brought my colleague to the Division of Birds in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, where the collection manager showed us a subset of rare and extinct species. No matter how much one reads and writes about human-induced defaunation, it’s difficult to describe the profound feeling of seeing animals lost to the world—yet saved for science, at a time when their tragic future was unforeseen. We looked at ivory-billed woodpeckers, Carolina parakeets, passenger pigeons and other extinct species, noting evidence of tissues sampled for genetic analyses that are rapidly increasing with improved technologies. We talked about avian pathogens, such as influenza, and the uses of the collection for infectious disease research. We stood humbled in front of drawers containing extant species with notable collectors, including John James Audubon, Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin.
Every drawer that opens in a museum collection has the capacity to surprise and amaze. For me, it was the last one that delivered. In an unassuming drawer like every other, I saw something more familiar to me than anything else we had viewed that morning. Not because this species is common—in fact, it is famously extinct—but rather that a partial skeleton was all that remained.
While the other specimens were lifelike and well-preserved with feathers, beaks and feet that ease identification and comparison, this one was represented solely by its pelvic bones. Bones are the majority of the collections that I curate and study, and the pelvis is an element of particular interest because of its evolutionary significance for our species and its valuable diagnostic traits for age and sex estimation in skeletonized remains. The distinctive non-human features of this pelvis were immediately recognizable to me, yet its similarities evoked a strong sense of vertebrate kinship. Their fragile and poorly preserved condition conveyed vulnerability. With the knowledge that they belonged to a dodo, these small, pale bones seemed symbolic of a vanishing world.
Walking back through the museum, my colleague and I reflected on the importance of museum collections in the connected world of pandemic threats. One clear benefit is the potential record of events beyond human remembrance or consciousness. For an example, he pointed to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed at least half a million Americans yet is largely absent from novels, histories, memoirs, popular magazines and other documents of the World War I era.
As discussed in “An Inquiry into the Peculiarities of the Human Mind” in Alfred Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic, its apparent disappearance from national memory could be attributed to the war itself, which may have blurred the casualties and subsumed the suffering of the pandemic. Its epidemiological characteristics provide another explanation: “The disease moved too fast … and was gone before many people had time to fully realize just how great was the danger.” This special power of museum collections was articulated among the many lamentations over the fire at the National Museum of Brazil, when the disaster was characterized as "a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory”.
To understand some of the greatest threats to our planet’s future, scientists look to the past. Museum collections of fossils, minerals, bones, artifacts, whole organisms, specimen tissues, environmental samples, sound and video recordings, written records and more have been collected and preserved all over the world, spanning billions of years to the present. We are living in a time of rapid, anthropogenic environmental change on a global scale, where human activities are warming and fouling our air and water, decimating biodiversity, degrading land and disrupting ecosystems on which we depend.
Understanding when certain changes started—and the extent to which they are unprecedented—is helped by historical knowledge and physical evidence of all types. Ginkgo fossils, for instance, can provide a detailed record of changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate over millions of years. Baleen plates of bowhead whales—called “Arctic time machines” in Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales—can preserve environmental signals such as carbon isotope ratios from a world before the widespread burning of fossil fuels. To see the bigger picture, one needs a wider view. As these collections continue to grow with time, they will record our responses, our actions, our impacts and, hopefully, our successes.