The 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, has been gutted by a massive fire. The blaze is thought to have destroyed the museum’s important collection of 20 million historical, scientific and anthropological artefacts. The fire broke out on Sunday evening, after the museum had closed to visitors, with flames visible for miles around. Early reports suggested that hydrants situated next to the museum were not working, and firefighters on the scene had to draw water from a nearby lake. No casualties have been reported.
‘It was the biggest natural history museum in Latin America. We have invaluable collections. Collections that are over 100 years old,’ museum vice director Cristiana Serejo commented. Another vice-director Luiz Duarte, said: ‘It is an unbearable catastrophe. It is 200 years of this country’s heritage. It is 200 years of memory. It is 200 years of science. It is 200 years of culture, of education.’ Museum director João Carlos Nara described the damage as a ‘cultural tragedy’.
Artefacts held in the building – the Palace of St Christopher, which once housed the Portuguese royal family – and now thought to be lost, include a Roman fresco from Pompeii, mummies and sarcophagi from Ancient Egypt, dinosaur fossils and a 5,260 kg meteorite, as well as ‘Luzia’ – the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman (the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas). It is still not known what has been salvaged from the blaze.
The initial cause of the devastating fire has not yet been found. But the building had suffered from neglect and serious dilapidation in recent years. Local media outlets even reported that museum employees had been forced to collect money to pay off cleaning bills. President Michel Temer, who has been leading an austerity-driven regime with serious cuts made to the science sector, and whose government has been mired in corruption allegations, described the loss of the museum as ‘incalculable.’
But museum vice-director Luiz Duarte blamed the government for underfunding the museum, leading to its dangerous state of disrepair. ‘For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,’ Duarte commented. ‘My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.’
Main image: Fire at Brazil’s National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Carl de Souza