5 Priceless Pieces of Art and Culture Devastated by Disaster

Last Friday was scary. Reports poured into our office that the American Museum of Natural History in New York was being evacuated because of a fire—and we had a scavenger hunt going on there! Thankfully, everyone made it out safely, and it turns out no fire technically occurred in the museum. There was plenty of smoke, and a few fire sprinklers went off, but no one was hurt and the museum reopened the next day.

While everything turned out fine this time, we got to thinking about instances when it didn’t. Since the dawn of civilization, humanity has made art—and in many cases, it has been lost to disaster and devastation. Check out five of those noteworthy losses below, and if you live near or plan to visit New York City, take a look at our always fun, sometimes murderous scavenger hunts at the Natural History Museum (and elsewhere)!

1. The Library of Alexandria

The Royal Library of Alexandria once shone as a beacon of culture and learning in the ancient world. The Great Library, as it is often known, was completed in the 3rd century BCE as part of the Alexandrian Museum in the city of Alexandria, founded in Egypt by Alexander the Great’s forces. At its height of glory, the Library boasted hundreds of thousands of written works and housed more than 100 full-time scholars from around the world. It stood for centuries and was, y’know, a pretty great place.

And then it was destroyed. We’re not clear on all the particulars—it’s not as if anyone live-tweeted the Library’s downfall—but the once-venerable institution definitely met a rough end. It is said Julius Caesar had at least a portion of the Library’s collection burned in 48 CE, and battles and riots in centuries afterward further laid waste to the Library. Its final destruction, it seems, came in the 7th century, when Arab troops conquered Alexandria and burned the once-great Library to the ground.

2. The Colossus of Rhodes

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes towered over the bustling harbor on the Greek island of Rhodes. Standing 100 feet tall, the Colossus was, well, a colossal bronze statue of the sun god Helios, for whom Zeus had created Rhodes. It was built to commemorate the island’s miraculous victory against a yearlong attack by the aptly nicknamed Syrian prince Demetrius the Besieger. When his 40,000 troops failed to sack the walled city, Demetrius threw in the towel, and the people of Rhodes sold the Syrians’ leftover siege weaponry to finance a monument to their triumph.

And so was born the Colossus of Rhodes, who stood for 56 years before disaster did him in. An earthquake in 226 BCE leveled the big guy, who lay in a shattered heap for almost 900 years. Then, adding insult to injury, Arab invaders in 653 CE chopped up the Colossus’ remaining pieces and sold them off as scrap metal.

3. The Amber Room

Once dubbed the eighth wonder of the (modern) world, the Amber Room was a stupendously ornate room crafted from tons upon tons of the eponymous gemstone. Sculpted by a German, constructed by a Dane and gifted in 1716 to Peter the Great as a symbol of peace between Russia and Prussia, the Amber Room was a magnificent work of international cooperation. (The picture above is a replica.)

And then World War II happened. During that time, fires, looting, bombings, and the general vagaries of war eradicated countless works of art, from Courbet’s The Stonebreakers to Van Gogh’s The Painter on his Way to Work. The Amber Room fared no better—German troops tore it down in 1941 and packed it in crates bound for Germany. The room was reassembled in a museum in Königsberg, then disassembled again and packed away in 1943. But the next year, an Allied bombing obliterated the town and its museum, and The Amber Room has since been lost. (Image via jeanyfan, Wikimedia Commons)

4. The Barnum Museum

In Bridgeport, Conn., stands the Barnum Museum, a collection of artifacts dedicated to that greatest of all hucksters, P.T. Barnum. Before his death, Barnum designated $100,000 for the construction of the Barnum Institute of Science and History. The library and lecture hall opened in 1893 and attracted the likes of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. In 1936, Bridgeport converted the building into the museum it is today.

But on June 24, 2010, a tornado battered the museum, severely damaging the building and its collection; paintings, furniture, statues, documents, costumes, a miniature circus, and more suffered. Many of the damaged pieces have yet to be restored more than four years later, and the historic part of the building remains closed to this day. (Image via Garcicar, Wikimedia Commons)

5. National September 11 Memorial Museum

The origin of the 9/11 museum needs no explanation, but the memorial to one disaster suffered again during the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The storm that laid waste to whole regions of the East Coast and crippled swaths of New York City also flooded the underground museum, which at the time was still being built. Floodwater poured into the construction site 70 feet below sea level, damaging artifacts and endangering the museum. Fortunately, Sandy presented only a temporary setback, and the museum opened in September.