Brazil Loses Priceless Heritage in National Museum Fire

A devastating fire swept through the over 200-year-old buildingthat 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 –fromnatural 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 historyor 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 experiencedso manyyears 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 recordspanning across millennia of history.

One heartening note of news: Firefighters may have uncoveredLuzia, 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 fireremainunder investigation, but reports sayflames 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 comeswith 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 dearthof 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 themajor 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 haspromised 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


Val M
Val M10 days ago

sad it's gone.

hELEN h12 days ago


Sophie A
Sophie A12 days ago


Ann B
Ann B15 days ago

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

Lorraine Andersen

That is such a terrible loss.

Suzanne L
Suzanne L16 days ago

Terrible loss.

Ann W
Ann W16 days 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.

Bronwyn B
Bronwyn B16 days ago

A regrettable loss for the whole world : (

Shirley S
Shirley S16 days ago

A tragedy that reverberates around the world of museums.

David F
David F16 days ago

The Brazilian museum reminds me of the loss of precious history when Pres. Obama insisted that Egyptian Pres. Mubarak be overthrown. That eventually happened with the Muslim brotherhood taking over but while that was happening, the Cairo Museum was ransacked and much was lost.

A World War II aviation Museum in Galveston Texas was destroyed when 2008 hurricane Ike sent 6 feet of saltwater through the museum. What was left was moved to Houston.
Museums of any quality should always be in secure buildings.