Eleven thousand years’ worth of artefacts went up in smoke as the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro — one of the largest collections in the Americas — burned down in a massive firestorm on Sunday night local time.
According to The Rio Times, reports indicate that every piece from the museum’s collection of over 20 million items that was not stored offsite or rushed out could be destroyed:
Early reports indicate that the museum’s vast collection of more than twenty million rare and historical objects, including South American archaeological artifacts, meteorites, fossils, and the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Latin America, were lost.
“We have no idea how it started!” exclaimed a museum researcher to Globo news. “There is so much love for this institution,” she said fighting through tears. “[T]his 200 year-old museum, this is the work of many people’s lives, zoological collections, botanical collections, everything lost… everything lost!”
No serious injuries are reported. The fire started at 7:30PM local time, with the cause unclear, and museum officials have to wait for firefighters to finish clearing the structure before they can assess the damage, CNN wrote.
Items in the building included Latin America’s most extensive Egyptian collection, pre-Columbian artefacts, the oldest human remains ever discovered in the Americas (“Luzia”), dinosaur bones, extensive biology exhibits and a massive scientific library. Here’s a few other things that were stored in the building, according to The New York Times:
One of the world’s largest meteorites, which was found in 1784 and had been on display since 1888.
... Items from a large swatch of Brazilian cultures, including funeral urns from around the year 1000 in the region of the Maracá River, statues and vases from the Santarém culture in the region of the lower Tapajós River, a mortar from the Trombetas River area and a rare mummy found in Brazil.
... A Greco-Roman collection with more than 700 pieces that arrived in Brazil in the 1850s.
... A vast bird collection almost 200 years old, representing the range seen in Brazil.
(The meteorite was among the items that may have survived the fire.)
According to the BBC, at least some parts of the building where animal specimens were stored survived intact, while The Guardian reported other parts of the archive stored in another building were undamaged.
Trágico incidente que destruiu um palácio marcante da nossa história. É um dever nacional reconstruí-lo das cinzas, recompor cada detalhe eternizado em pinturas e fotos e ainda que não seja o original continuará a ser para sempre a lembrança da família imperial que nos deu a independência, o império, a primeira constituição e a unidade nacional. ESCLARECIMENTO Na nota acima, o trecho "...reconstruí-lo das cinzas, recompor cada detalhe eternizado em pinturas e fotos e ainda que não seja o original..." refere-se ao prédio do Museu Nacional e não ao acervo, como pode ter sido interpretado equivocadamente por alguns. Itens de valores inestimáveis foram perdidos, como bem sabemos todos, e jamais poderão ser recuperados. O Palácio Imperial foi o que nos restou desta tragédia. Vamos tentar recuperá-lo sim, em apoio ao governo federal, para salvar, ao menos, esta obra arquitetônica de valor incomensurável para o Brasil.
Museum staff were able to rush in, in some cases bashing down doors, and save some items. Professor Paulo Buckup, an expert in fish science, told the BBC he rescued “a few thousand” mollusc specimens, adding, “I don’t know how many tens of thousands of insects and crustaceans were lost. I feel very sorry for my colleagues, some of whom have worked here for 30 or 40 years. Now all evidence of their work is lost, their lives have lost meaning, too.”
“This is 200 years of work of a scientific institution — the most important one in Latin America,” longtime museum employee Marco Aurelio Caldas told Agencia Brasil, per CNN. “Everything is finished. Our work, our life was all in there.”
Brazil has been facing years of recession and corruption scandals, with both the federal and state governments struggling with massive budget shortfalls. According to the BBC, museum staff said lack of funding had left the museum in poor condition, and around a third of the building’s 30 exhibition halls were shut down due to financial constraints at the time of the fire.
Vice director Luiz Duarte told TV Globo the fire was an “unbearable catastrophe,” according to The Guardian.
“For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” Duarte added. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”
Here’s some more context on just how negligent the Brazilian government’s oversight of the museum’s budget was in recent years, courtesy of National Geographic:
Since 2014, the Museu Nacional hasn’t received its full $128,000 [$AU177,819] maintenance budget; this year, it received a paltry $13,000 [$AU18,060]. In 2015, the Museu Nacional was forced to close its doors temporarily because it could no longer pay its cleaning and security staff. The museum’s curators had to crowdfund repairs to termite damage in one of the most popular exhibit halls, which contained the skeleton of a humpback whale and bones from the dinosaur Maxakalisaurus.
In May 2018 — on the eve of its 200th anniversary — ten of the museum’s 30 exhibits were closed to the public because of disrepair. At the time, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that the museum had peeling walls and exposed electrical wiring.