Before its consumption by flame on the night of September 2, the National Museum of Brazil — which was about to celebrate its bicentennial with a set of collector coins — held an impressive collection of over 20 million objects, including a scientific library stocked with 470,000 tomes. This is not to be confused with the National Historical Museum of Brazil, which contains the largest numismatic collection in Latin America, and remains safe. The former museum’s collection spanned subjects including archaeology, biological anthropology, ethnology, geology, paleontology, and zoology. The sheer scope of the loss suffered to culture, history, and science harks back to the destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, which is now synonymous with the senseless loss of knowledge. While it appears that the National Museum of Brazil did not contain any objects of numismatic significance at the time of its destruction, a debate has emerged in the hobby community concerning whether coin and paper money collections are safer in public or private hands, and the importance of digital backups for tangible (and thus, vulnerable) historical objects.
While a number of coin collections are already in private hands, museums are beginning to trend that way as well, according to an article by Kathryn Brown, a lecturer in art history at Loughborough University. This trend toward increasing privatization may, in part, be due to the increasing influence of the Internet on the viewing experience. While nothing compares to seeing a coin collection in person, high-resolution images and high-definition videos of coins are irrevocably changing the way that we appreciate the hobby. The same goes for museum collections. Why go to a museum or a public coin collection when you can view a private collection from the comfort of your home (or smartphone) any time you want and for free?
Flashback to the fires of Alexandria and Brazil’s National Museum. Perhaps there is a danger in concentrating all of our coin or museum collections in one public place, without first digitally backing up every item. A single fire, flood, or other natural or man-made disaster could wipe out all of the knowledge and history stored there in seconds. This risk is viewed by some as an unnecessary one in this day and age. Proponents of privatization in the hobby contend that having coins loved and appreciated in hundreds of different private collections is preferable to storing coins in a few public collections where they are often neglected, forgotten, or callously resold.
Advocates for public ownership of historical artifacts and coins are concerned with the potential volatility of the private market. Furthermore, there is another bitter debate in the fields of archaeology and history on what separates private ownership of historical objects from grave robbing. Despite this debate, the actions of private owners of historical artifacts and grave robbers are fundamentally different. Grave robbers typically intend to sell their finds on the black market. Private collectors and museums, on the other hand, often display their items to the public — despite controlling the ownership of said objects. There is another debate about who has the right to control history, which is perfectly summed up in a quote from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
Thankfully, the Internet, despite containing an abundance of false, incomplete, and misleading information, has largely taken the control of history out of the hands of a few select individuals and governments in the places where the public has access to it — rendering this debate between public and private ownership somewhat obsolete. Instant communication and the Internet’s capacity for an infinite storage of information allow us, as individuals, to fact-check and cross-reference a multitude of sources that cannot be as easily controlled or curated as physical collections of historical significance. An article by Emily Dreyfuss on Wired calls for a digital backup of items of historical and cultural significance in the wake of the fire that consumed the National Museum of Brazil. Even if historical objects were to be physically destroyed or damaged beyond recognition, they, and the knowledge they contain, can achieve immortality in digital form. It is also through the Internet that the hobby of numismatics and collecting can achieve immortality as well.