Second Brazilian Museum Fire in Two Years Sparks Calls for Reform

Authorities are assessing the damage caused by a June 15 blaze at the Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden in Belo Horizonte

Rubble from Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden fire
The Federal University of Minas Gerais’ Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden houses 260,000 artifacts ranging from fossils to folk art. Rogerio Pateo / NAV / DAA UFMG

In September 2018, a devastating fire ravaged Brazil’s National Museum. Now, yet another Brazilian cultural institution—the Federal University of Minas GeraisNatural History Museum and Botanical Garden (MHNJB) in Belo Horizonte—has fallen victim to an inferno.

Per the local fire department, the blaze broke out around 6 a.m. on the morning of June 15. Though firefighters managed to contain the flames shortly after arriving on the scene, the museum, which houses 260,000 artifacts ranging from fossils to folk art, sustained significant losses.

Authorities are still assessing the full extent of the damage, but as Emiliano Rodríguez Mega reports for Nature News & Comment, the fire spread to at least five storage rooms. Two rooms containing archaeological objects were covered in soot and smoke, while a third housing Indigenous artifacts and biological specimens was partially damaged. Another two used to store animal specimens, human remains and ancient plants were almost completely destroyed.

The disaster has raised alarm among advocates who argue that Brazil’s museums lack the resources needed to properly protect their collections. Less than two years ago, a faulty air conditioning unit ignited a fire that reduced around 90 percent of the National Museum’s 20-million artifact collection to ash. By February 2019, staff had recovered about 2,000 artifacts, including an 11,500-year-old skull, two meteorites and segments of a 44-foot Maxakalisaurus topai dinosaur skeleton, from the rubble.

Firefighters tackle the blaze
The fire broke out around 6 a.m. local time. Fire Department of Minas Gerais

Archaeologist André Prous saw artifacts he collected destroyed in both the 2018 fire and the more recent blaze.

“The sadness is matched only by the fear that other, similar disasters will continue to destroy [Brazil’s] scientific heritage,” he tells Nature News.

Even before the highly publicized 2018 inferno, the South American country had experienced a string of devastating museum fires, with flames inflicting damage at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, the Museum of Natural Sciences in Belo Horizonte, the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo and the Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station between 2010 and 2015 alone.

A seven-month investigation of the National Museum fire concluded that a trio of air conditioners installed without following manufacturer recommendations sparked the blaze. Inadequate safety measures throughout the museum then facilitated the fire’s spread.

MHNJB’s electrical wiring was redone in 2013 and most recently inspected in October 2018, reports Gabriella Angeleti for the Art Newspaper. Around the time of this inspection, an independent task force found that the museum lacked a fire inspection report, as well as fire and panic safety protocols. A 2015 report previously stated that the museum failed to pass a fire department inspection, indicating it lacked a plan for protecting collections in case of an inferno.

As Nature News points out, the threat of fire destroying cultural heritage sites extends far beyond Brazil. But the country has a poor record of safeguarding its museums against such disasters. While fire safety systems are regularly installed in national institutions, they often prove too expensive to maintain on museums’ limited budgets.

Salvaged artifacts
Researchers are now assessing artifacts salvaged from the blaze. Emergency Rescue Committee

Speaking with Déborah Lima of local media outlet the Estado de Minais Gerais, former MHNJB director Antonion Gilberto Costa alleges that the fire resulted from “negligence.” The museum had the equivalent of about $113,000 set aside for renovations and repairs at the time of Costa’s departure in August 2019, he adds, but the funds went unused.

“After many years we managed to get resources to improve the university,” Costa says, per a translation by the Art Newspaper. “What country is this that we allow these things to happen every day and nobody does anything? What was here was important for the history of man’s evolution.”

Ricardo Hallal Fakury, a structural engineer at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, tells Nature News that the building was built with nonflammable materials and equipped with smoke detectors.

He declined to speculate on the fire’s cause, citing the ongoing investigation, but says,“[The] lack of resources had no relation to the fire in the collection’s storage rooms.”

Moving forward, museum staff will search the rubble in hopes of finding artifacts that survived the fire. Researchers from the National Museum will advise the process.

“Unfortunately, we are now experts in this matter,” says National Museum director Alexander Kellner, to Nature News. “We went through it. We know the mistakes to avoid, we have a way to act, we have a methodology.”

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