The fire at the Museu Nacional. Image: Fernando Souza/Adufrj

Details emerge of destruction at Brazil's national museum

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 13.09.2018
International effort underway to salvage knowledge, research and images
A clearer picture is beginning to emerge of the extent of the damage caused by the fire at Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro on 2 September.

Although the museum has not yet been able to officially confirm the details, media reports indicate that some of the biggest losses include the museum’s entire entomological collection of five million specimens, its entire arachnological and much of its mollusc collections.

The blaze also destroyed the museum’s linguistics department, which included records of indigenous south American languages no longer spoken by living people. The museum housed remains and artefacts belonging to numerous indigenous groups, including skulls belonging to the Botacudo people who were killed off by colonial settlers in the 1800s - many of which are believed to have been lost.

The museum has confirmed that its annex building and botanical garden were not affected, which means its invertebrate collection, conservation and restoration laboratory, herbarium collection, vertebrates collection and central library survived the fire. In addition, it is hoped that some archaeological and palaeontological material stored in metal cabinets may have withstood the blaze.

One of the museum’s most famous objects, the Bendegó meteorite, survived largely unscathed, but the fate of other important exhibits such as 12,000-year-old Luzia, the earliest human specimen yet to be found in South America, remains unknown.

An international effort is underway to salvage knowledge, research and images of the museum and its artefacts, including a campaign by researchers to digitally recreate the museum’s research archive. The campaign is seeking copies of dissertations, theses and historical studies connected to the museum.  

The museum itself has asked visitors to help digitally reconstruct the museum by uploading photos to museunacional.ufrj.br/memoria. Institutions that are interested in offering “concrete” support are asked to email the museum’s director.

Seperately, Wikipedia has also launched a project to collate images of objects from the museum. “We’re asking people everywhere to join our global community and help the world recover from this collective tragedy,” said Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Several UK institutions have been in contact with the Museu Nacional to offer their assistance. A spokeswoman for the Natural History Museum in London told Museums Journal: “Following the terrible events in Rio de Janeiro, our thoughts go out to everyone at the Museu Nacional, and to all of Brazil. We have collaborated for many years with the Museu Nacional and have offered our assistance so that we can look forward to continuing to work together in the future.”

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “The British Museum is deeply saddened to hear the reports of the fire at the Museu Nacional and our sympathies are with all in Rio de Janerio at this difficult time. We will keep in touch with our colleagues in Brazil and offer our assistance for help in the future.”

The cause of the blaze is not yet confirmed but a recent engineers report concluded that a fire at the museum was almost "inevitable", showing pictures of hazardous maintenance issues such as exposed wiring. The museum also lacked fire doors and a sprinkler system. Staff at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which runs the museum, have pointed the finger at years of government underfunding.

A full analysis of the Museu Nacional fire and its implications will appear in the October issue of Museums Journal.

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