A museum staff member rescues items from the national museum (c) Fernando Souza/Adufrj

Fire devastates Brazil's national museum

Alex Stevens, 04.09.2018
Close to 90% of museum’s collection thought to have been lost
Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the Museo Nacional, has been gutted by fire. The full impact on its collection of around 20 million items is not yet known, but close to 90% is thought to have been lost – devastating to an institution which celebrated its 200th anniversary this summer.

The country’s president said the loss of work, research and knowledge represented was “incalculable”. Images showed museum staff salvaging items while other parts of the building were in flames.  

The fire’s cause is unconfirmed, but the building was in a state of disrepair. The museum had recently agreed a plan with Brazil’s national investment bank which would have allowed significant renovations, including improvements to fire safety. Luiz Duarte, a vice director of the museum, described this as “the most terrible irony”.

Housed in the former imperial palace of São Cristóvão, the museum had one of the largest anthropology and natural history collections in South America. It included the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman known as Luzia, thought to be one of the first wave of immigrants to the region, Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts, indigenous works, and other significant archaeology, ethnology, geology, paleontology and zoology archives.

Underinvestment quickly become an issue of controversy following the fire. Protests taking place outside the building have led to clashes with police, with television images showing the police using pepper spray.

In comments to local media, Duarte said that successive governments had failed to support the museum. Its funding had continued to fall in recent years against a nationwide background of economic austerity under the current president, Michel Temer.

The president and other government officials said that funding for restoration was being sought from companies, banks and Unesco. An initial 15m reais (£2.8m) has been promised for reconstruction, according to the education minister Rossieli Soares.

The city's fire chief, Roberto Robadey, said that nearby hydrants were dry when emergency services arrived and that crews had been forced to get water from a nearby lake and from tanker trucks.

Parts of the collection reportedly saved from the fire include the popular Bendegó meteorite, some of the zoological collection, the library and some ceramics.

The worldwide museum community has expressed sorrow at the museum's destruction. The International Council of Museums (Icom) said in a statement: “While we are relieved that this disaster has not caused any mortalities, we mourn the loss of the museum’s invaluable collection, which included important natural history, mineralogical, paleontological, archaeological, ethnographic, and documentary collections, which hold up to 20 million items.

“Icom, on behalf of the international museum community, wishes to extend its firm support to the workers of the National Museum of Brazil and its solidarity with the wider museum community in Brazil and with the Brazilian people.”

Picture credit: Fernando Souza/Adufrj

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