Why Brazil’s National Museum Fire Was a Devastating Blow to South America’s Cultural Heritage

The collection of more than 20 million artifacts included the oldest fossil found in the Americas and a trove of indigenous literature

The National Museum, seen from above, after the overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A towering inferno of smoke and flames dominated the Rio de Janeiro skyline on Sunday night, signaling the abrupt demise of Brazil’s National Museum, a 200-year-old institution that housed a priceless repository of South America's cultural heritage.

Scholars, soldiers and firefighters braved the flames in hopes of retrieving a portion of the museum’s collection of more than 20 million artifacts. The impressive archives represented fields ranging from anthropology to ethnology, art history and zoology.

According to BBC Brasil’s Julia Carneiro, some artifacts were successfully salvaged—zoologist Paulo Buckup, for one, managed to escape with “a few thousand” mollusk specimens—but a local official speculates to the Guardian’s Sam Jones and Dom Phillips that up to 90 percent of the museum’s collections could have been destroyed by the flames.

The fire broke out around 7:30 p.m. local time, roughly two hours after the museum had closed for the day. In a statement, Rio de Janeiro fire department spokesperson Roberto Robadey said that 80 firefighters battled the blaze, bringing it under control around midnight. Initial progress was hampered by two fire hydrants that lacked enough pressure to fight the flames, forcing the crew to siphon water from a nearby pond.

As the night wore on, Lívia Torres at Brazil’s G1 Globo News reports that fire and ash—which included charred documents from the museum—rained down on surrounding neighborhoods; by the following morning, the museum’s once-stately exterior had been reduced to a ravaged husk.

Investigators are still awaiting permission to assess the building’s charred remains, but officials speculate that an electrical short circuit or a paper hot-air balloon that landed on the museum’s roof could have started the fire.

Culture minister Sérgio Sa Leitão said "the tragedy could have been avoided” but “the problems of the National Museum have been piling up over time,” according to a translation of his statement by the Guardian. "This tragedy serves as a lesson,” Sá Leitão continued, adding that “Brazil needs to take better care of its cultural heritage and the collections of its museums.”

As National Geographic’s Michael Greshko writes, underfunding may have doomed the beloved cultural institution: Since 2014, the National Museum has failed to receive its full annual budget of $128,000. This year, the museum received just $13,000. Financial shortfalls were so dire that in late 2017, curators were forced to rely on crowdfunding to support the repair of a popular exhibition hall that had been infested with termites.

On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered at the museum’s gates, calling for authorities to reveal the extent of the damage and promise to rebuild. According to the Associated Press’ Peter Prengaman and Sarah DiLorenzo, when the protestors attempted to see the damage, police held them back using pepper spray, tear gas and batons.

2018 should have been a triumphant year for the National Museum. On June 6, the institution celebrated the bicentennial of its founding, marking the event with commemorative medals and promises to overcome financial woes that had left 10 of the building’s 30 dilapidated exhibition halls closed to the public. The museum was recently granted $5 million for a planned renovation, but the funds—which provided for the installation of an up-to-date fire prevention system—were only scheduled for distribution in October. “Look at the irony. The money is now there, but we ran out of time,” museum director Alexander Kellner told reporters at the scene.

Officials say they will designate $2.4 million for the extensive rebuilding process that lies ahead. Cultural institutions around the world, from the Louvre to the Smithsonian Institution, have offered their condolences and support as the campaign moves forward. Still, much of the chaos wrought by the inferno is irreversible.

While it remains unclear which artifacts were ultimately destroyed by the fire (the 5.8-ton Bendegó meteorite is one of the few items that officials believe survived the fire), read about five treasures of Latin American cultural heritage that are among those feared lost:

Luzia, the Oldest Human Fossil in the Americas

In 1975, a French archaeologist named Annette Laming-Emperaire unearthed an 11,500-year-old skull in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. According to Inverse’s Mike Brown, the skull belonged to a young woman, dubbed “Luzia” in honor of the Australopithecus afarensis commonly known as Lucy, who died in her early 20s. Luzia stood around 5 feet tall and was a member of an early hominin group that dined on nuts, fruits and berries. Her remains are the oldest to be discovered in the Americas.

There is a chance that Luzia survived the blaze: Earlier today, Brazilian historian Marina Amaral posted an unverified tweet stating, “Firefighters found a skull amid the rubble. It may be Luzia, the oldest human fossil ever found in the Americas. A group of experts will analyze it now.”

Maxakalisaurus topai

The reconstructed skeleton of a Maxakalisaurus topai dinosaur served as one of the National Museum’s most popular attractions. The creature’s fossilized remains were discovered in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in 1998. Excavation and restoration of the 44-foot skeleton took 10 years.

According to BBC News, the exhibition hall housing the dinosaur reopened in July after crowdfunding contributions enabled the museum to repair damage inflicted by termites.

G1 Globo News reports that several bones from the skeleton are housed in the Museum of Minerals and Rocks of the Federal University of Uberlândia and therefore escaped the flames.

Pre-Hispanic artifacts and indigenous items

(Anthropomorphic ceramic figurine by the Peruvian Wari culture circa 500–1200 CE. CC BY-SA 4.0)

BBC News notes that the museum’s archaeological collection included more than 100,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts, as well as funeral urns, Andean mummies, textiles and ceramics from across Latin America. According to the New York Times’ Daniel Victor, the items represented a “large swatch of Brazilian cultures” found along the Maracá River, lower Tapajós River and Trombetas River.

Indigenous literature

The museum housed one of the world’s best collections of indigenous literature, according to José Urutau Guajajara, a key leader in Rio de Janiero's movement for indigenous people’s rights. “This is the greatest loss of indigenous writing in Latin America. Our memory has been erased,” he said, as the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts reported on Twitter.

The building itself

(CC BY-SA 3.0)

King João VI of Portugal established the National Museum in 1818, but it didn’t move into its current home until 1892. Prior to housing the museum, the building—then known as the São Cristóvão palace—served as the official residence of the exiled Portuguese royal family. When Brazil asserted its independence from Portugal, the palace transferred to the country’s new imperial house, which controlled the estate until Brazil became a republic in 1889.

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