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Remains of The National Museum of Brazil.

20 Million Artifacts In Latin America’s Largest Museum - Gone - In Blazing Inferno


Saint Christopher's Palace in the Quinta da Boa Vista park, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil had served as residence for both the Portuguese and Brazilian royal families before becoming the National Museum in 1892. The building has been listed as Brazilian National Heritage since 1938.

The National Museum in Brazil was the oldest scientific institution of Brazil and the largest museum of natural history and anthropology in Latin America. On Sunday night an uncontrollable fire ravaged through the museum’s vast collection of more than “20 million objects” and it is currently unknown how many have survived. “An unbearable erasure of human history potentially caused by years of neglect,“ is how one eyewitness described the fire in an article about the fire in the Washington Post.

Originally called the Royal Museum, the collection was founded in 1818 by King João VI of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, to promote “socioeconomic development of the country by the diffusion of education, culture, and science.” It encompassed some of the most important natural science and anthropology records in Brazil, as well as a large number of items from other cultures and ancient civilizations in distant countries.

Paço de São Cristóvão, former imperial palace of the Emperors of Brazil was home to the National Museum of Brazil. (CC BY 2.0)

Paço de São Cristóvão, former imperial palace of the Emperors of Brazil was home to the National Museum of Brazil. (CC BY 2.0)

Austerity and neglect blamed for the complete devastation

Riot police struggled to control a massive crowd who were calling for President Michael Tremer's resignation outside the inferno. A Bloomberg article reported that BBC journalist Katy Wilson said “thousands at the scene blamed the fire on years of austerity measures for lack of funding and modernization efforts at museum.” Tremer addressed his nation on Monday afternoon declaring that “the loss was incalculable to Brazil” and he has already announced that the museum will be rebuilt using public and private funds.

While Tremer is trying to maintain a state of calm, in the face of gross neglect on his watch, Marina Silva, a former environment minister and candidate in the upcoming presidential election told reporters at The Guardian that the fire was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” And her passionate, heart-felt comment was supported by Luiz Duarte, a vice director of the museum, who told reporters at TV Globo “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.”

Once beautiful National Museum of Brazil is now destroyed. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once beautiful National Museum of Brazil is now destroyed. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lost contents of Brazil National Museum

The museum, which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year, was formed over two centuries through archaeological, anthropological and geological expeditions, excavations, acquisitions, donations and exchanges. The collection was subdivided into seven main sections: geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and ethnology. Destroyed items include a “several-ton meteorite” and dinosaur bones kept by Dom Pedro I, who declared Brazil independent from Portugal in 1825. It also housed the 11,500-year-old skull known as ‘Lucia’, South America’s oldest known human fossil.

Is anyone to blame for this catastrophe? Or was it an accident?

Police investigators are telling the media that they are “currently unclear how the fire started.” However, former director Duarte blamed the government “for poor funding and outdated protection” and claimed a fire prevention system was set to be installed but came too late. An official visit by Agência Brasil in 2004 found “dangerous wiring and poor safety standards that risked the chance of a catastrophic fire.” Duarte also told reporters at The Guardian that “For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said, adding “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”

Photos from the scene showed firefighters arranging recovered artifacts but it will never be known how many documents, text and books were lost, which firefighters speculate may have fueled the blaze. Like national leaders speaking at a state funeral, or Tweeting their “thoughts and prayers” as is most often the case these days, the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum said on Twitter "We grieve today with our colleagues in Brazil. Our hearts and thoughts are with you.” The British Library in London then tweeted the incident is “a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our shared global heritage.”

There is no way to even begin calculating the cultural and historical loss to the world caused by the act of neglect, and unfortunately in South American countries justice is seldom done at a governmental level. But somewhere at 9 am this morning, an insurance claims adjuster just got appointed the largest job he will ever see, hopefully.

Top image: Remains of The National Museum of Brazil.      Source: Channel News Asia (Youtube Screenshot)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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