Fire at Brazil’s National Museum Destroys Thousands of Years of History

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Flames engulf the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA

The Museu Nacional houses artefacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and some of the first fossils found in Brazil.

Brazilian President Michel Temer has called the loss incalculable.

On Sunday, the country’s 200-year-old National Museum was gutted by a fire that began Saturday night. More than 20 million priceless artifacts were housed in the building, in Rio de Janeiro, including “Luzia,” a 12,000-year-old skeleton, the oldest human remains in the Americas.

 The fire began after the museum closed. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

“It is an unbearable catastrophe. It is 200 years of this country’s heritage,” Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, a vice director at the museum, told Brazilian media. “It is 200 years of memory. It is 200 years of science. It is 200 years of culture, of education.”


How the fire began remains unknown, but employees had reportedly been warning of the potential for such a catastrophe because of the building’s disrepair. Local media are calling the fire a tragédia anunciada,or foretold tragedy. Luzia’s “dad,” the anthropologist who discovered the remains, had also raised concerns about the lack of maintenance.

 The National Museum facade, in the middle of the park Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Alamy

Firefighters reportedly did not have enough water in nearby fire hydrants to battle the flames, and instead had to source it from a nearby lake. Horrified onlookers, including museum staff, also joined the rescue efforts, carrying what they could away from the burning building.

Guardian graphic. Image: Google Earth. Source: Museu Nacional

The building was once a royal palace, but was converted into a museum in 1892, and is now a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Among its collection were Egyptian and Greco-Roman artifacts, dinosaurs and other fossils, and invaluable historical objects, including artwork, tools, weapons, and musical instruments from Brazil’s indigenous people. It was also home to the mummified bodies of a woman and two children thought to have lived 600 years before Europeans arrived to the country. It was a collection considered “fundamental to world history,” said the museum’s director, Paulo Knauss, who called the inferno “a pitiful tragedy.”

Most of the exhibits are thought to have been destroyed; one of the few items likely to survive is a meteorite found in 1784.

At the scene, several indigenous people gathered and criticised the fact that the museum containing their most precious artefacts has burned down seemingly because there was no money for maintenance of hydrants, yet the city had recently managed to find a huge budget to build a brand new museum of tomorrow. A crowd of several dozen people outside the gates, several of whom were clearly distraught. Others blamed the government’s austerity policies and corruption.

Rio’s fire chief Colonel Roberto Robaday said the firefighters did not have enough water at first because two hydrants were dry. “The two nearest hydrants had no supplies,” he said. Water trucks were brought in and water used from a nearby lake. “This is an old building,” he said, “with a lot of flammable material, lots of wood and the documents and the archive itself.”

Some Brazilians saw the fire as a metaphor for their country’s traumas as it battles terrifying levels of violent crime and the effects of a recession that has left more than 12 million people unemployed.

“The tragedy this Sunday is a sort of national suicide. A crime against our past and future generations,” Bernard Mello Franco, one of Brazil’s best-known columnists, wrote on the O Globo newspaper site.

It is not yet known how the fire began. The loss is “incalculable,” said Brazil’s president in a tweet. AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA

A desperate worker rescues items. REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES

Firefighters from seven companies worked through the night. REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES

As daylight arrived, firefighters continued to spray water inside the museum. Museum directors say they fear almost everything was lost in the inferno. REUTERS/PILAR OLIVARES

National Museum employees cry as they look at the burned building on Monday (September 3.) AP PHOTO/SILVIA IZQUIERDO

A woman works on a replica of the Angaturama Limai’s skeleton, the largest carnivorous dinosaur found in Brazil, in 2009. AP PHOTO/ RICARDO MORAES

“Luzia” is thought to be nearly 12,000 years old. She was unearthed in 1975. REUTERS