Pol Pot

Why Brazil's National Museum Fire is Tragic and What You Can Do to Save Its Knowledge


In light of the recent museum fire in Brazil, I find myself reflecting on the concept of collective memory, and I believe it is fitting to my mission with The Asian Craving. And it starts with Cambodia.

What do you remember learning about Cambodia?

Collective memory is one of the reasons Cambodia is at the top of my list of countries to visit.

In the late 1970s, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a communist party headed by Pol Pot, who would be remembered as one of the worst dictators in modern history.

During their time in power, they destroyed nearly all record of Cambodian culture and history by eliminating books and people, but also by allowing their national museum to fall into disrepair. And when the country started to rebuild, there was no one left to teach the next generation about Cambodian culture – 90% of artists and performers did not survive the Khmer Rouge.

Arn Chorn Pond Cambodian Living Arts Ted Talk

I learned about this in depth in my human rights law classes, but the documentary The Flute Player has left an incredible impression on me. It follows Arn Chorn-Pond, who was a child during the Khmer Rouge’s reign and was brought to the United States as a teenage refugee, and tells the story of his mission to bring music and art back to Cambodia.

His foundation, Cambodian Living Arts, focused on saving “endangered performing art forms and rituals.” Music was passed on via oral tradition, not written, which has made it quite an obstacle to revitalize the arts. Nearly 20 years after the organization’s creation, it now works to support careers in the arts with scholarships and fellowships.

After learning Chorn-Pond’s story (and discussing the film in class), I felt (and still feel) an obligation to learn more about Cambodia, from history to art to cuisine. Prior to my university class, I did a project about Pol Pot in high school, but beyond that, I know very little about Cambodian culture. Chorn-Pond wants people to know Cambodia for its art and culture, not the killing fields.

And so I ask again: what do you remember learning about Cambodia?

Follow up question: what do you remember learning about Brazil?

Museu Nacional Rio Brazil Museum Fire

After witnessing the news of the Museu Nacional burning, I implore you to learn about and experience Brazilian culture. Visit their website and choose a topic to study further. If you can, visit Brazil (and not just for Carnaval). Learn about found photographs from the early 1960s and the story they tell about Ipanema before the world learned about Bossa Nova.

If you aren't passionate about Brazilian culture, at least try the food. It might change your mind.

If you have come to this website, you likely believe in the power of food. You believe cuisine is the gateway to developing passionate curiosity. You believe that the only way to truly experience a culture is through your gut, and you care more about the dining experience than a restaurant's rating on any website.

And if that's not enough motivation, remember that the whole world has lost pieces of its own history to this fire. Like many museums, Museu Nacional documents the history of humanity. There are possibly samples and specimens lost to the fire that could have explained the entire history of you.

Not everyone can travel to learn about cultures first-hand, but we do have access to libraries, global news sources, international media databases, and, best of all, restaurants to teach us more about cultures beyond our own. Even so, you can learn about your own country's history and culture the same way.

Please just take the time to learn about any culture that isn’t yours. Take the time to learn anything. With so much art, physical records, and oral history disappearing due to accidents, natural disasters, and war, we are losing invaluable information about humanity. Be part of it. Contribute to the collective memory.