Brazil Loses Priceless Heritage in National Museum Fire

A devastating fire swept through the over 200-year-old building that houses Brazil’s National Museum on September 2, consuming many of its 20 million priceless artifacts. The event is a tragedy for the people of Brazil, who watched irreplaceable history – from natural history collections to ancient human remains — go up in smoke.

But it was also a cautionary tale about budget cuts and tolerance for governments that don’t support the arts.

The facility housing the museum was built as a private residence for Portugal’s royal family. When it transitioned to a museum, it eventually grew to become one of the largest collections in Latin America, including a huge spectrum of items. Some collections focused on natural history or anthropology, while others explored social history and Greco-Roman art. The carefully curated collections of the museum collectively represented tens of thousands of years of history.

Westerners often forget that Latin America experienced so many years of pre-Columbian history, hosting an incredibly diverse assortment of cultures. The museum’s collections included the oldest known human skull identified in Latin America — that of a woman known as Luzia — along with a host of other archaeological and anthropological items, creating a record spanning across millennia of history.

One heartening note of news: Firefighters may have uncovered Luzia, though the loss of other indigenous collections is still hard to fully assess.

In addition to Latin American items, the museum housed collections from around the world, like a fresco that survived Pompeii. The National Museum was a leading research institution with a wealth of material for visitors to draw upon. The collections at this prestigious museum were some of the largest in the Americas, period, not just Latin America, and their loss is a blow for historians and researchers all over the world.

The circumstances of the fire remain under investigation, but reports say flames broke out after hours and moved quickly. It was hard for firefighters to control, especially with inadequate pressure at nearby hydrants. Overhead images of the museum look apocalyptic: It’s little more than a charred husk. Fire crews and museum staff say they were able to save some items, and a full accounting of losses could take months, although at least one collection survived: the meteorites.

Museum staffers say this fire comes with an extra bitterness: Their institution was chronically underfunded — and it had, in fact, recently been promised money for fire prevention and training at the museum, which lacked a sprinkler system. That dearth of funding, some claim, could be responsible for the fire’s devastating impact.

The incident no doubt serves as a reminder that governments who don’t invest in their cultural heritage risk losing it. This kind of slow death by funding cuts was also what ultimately gutted the Library at Alexandria, for example.

Researchers who worked at the museum are facing the loss of their life’s work, in some cases, with collections destroyed by the fire. This represents a huge cultural loss for Brazil, but it also could push researchers elsewhere, creating “brain drain” if they can’t regain their footing on Brazilian ground — another example of the major repercussions of this devastation.

Museum staffers are busy picking through the remains to pull out any surviving items or those that could be salvaged. The international museum community has also rallied round with pledges of support, including plans to create a digital record of the museum from photographs taken by visitors over the years. The government has promised to work on rebuilding the museum, but its collections will be extremely challenging to restore.

This is not the only high-profile museum fire of recent years, and it should be a sobering reminder of the importance of promoting healthy funding levels for institutions like these.

Photo credit: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Creative Commons

46 comments

Karen Martinez
Karen Martinezabout a month ago

How very sad. Hopefully other museums will learn from this and ensure that they have adequate fire prevention equipment.

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Val M
Val M2 months ago

sad it's gone.

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hELEN h
hELEN h2 months ago

Tyfs

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Sophie A
Sophie A2 months ago

Dreadful

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Ann B
Ann B2 months ago

once something is gone---it is gone forever--even if insured -it cant be replaced

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Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine A2 months ago

That is such a terrible loss.

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Suzanne L
Suzanne L2 months ago

Terrible loss.

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Ann W
Ann W2 months ago

An absolute tragedy - especially for Brazil, but also for the world. This is what comes from Government inaction on adequate funding to preserve these treasures.

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Bronwyn B
Bronwyn B2 months ago

A regrettable loss for the whole world : (

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Shirley S
Shirley S2 months ago

A tragedy that reverberates around the world of museums.

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