Fire Engulfs Major Brazilian Museum
Rio’s Quinta da Boa Vista National Museum houses artifacts including mummies and the Americas’ oldest human fossil
A massive fire engulfed Brazil’s largest history and science museum, home to a collection of 20 million items including the Americas’ oldest human fossil, Egyptian mummies, archaeological pottery, gigantic tropical beetles and much more.
As firefighters in Rio de Janeiro were going through the burned remains of the Quinta da Boa Vista National Museum on Monday, it seemed unlikely that Luzia—a skeleton that is at least 10,000 years old and that was found in Brazil in 1975—survived the fire. Hundreds if not thousands of other artifacts appeared to have been reduced to cinders.
Local media images showed ashes carpeting burned walls, as city officials feared that the entire building would collapse.
Neighbors called firefighters when they spotted flames on Sunday evening burning through the windows of the museum, the lofty former home of Brazil’s 19th-century monarchs where the Declaration of Independence from Portugal was signed in 1822 and the country’s equivalent of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
Early responders found nearby hydrants with low pressure, which hobbled the operation, Rio’s Fire Department said in a statement. Firefighters used water from their trucks and from a neighboring lake in a six-hour effort to tame the flames that lit up Rio’s warm night.
A five-ton meteorite known as Bondegó, the largest ever found in Brazil, appeared to have been one of the few major artifacts that survived the blaze. There were no reported casualties. Four security guards who were in the building when the fire started were able to leave unharmed, a museum spokesman said.
But for residents of picturesque Rio de Janeiro, an ebullient metropolis and former headquarters of both the Portuguese and the Brazilian crowns, the loss was evident.
“The feeling I got from walking where princesses and all these figures from history books once lived is beyond words,” said Catharina Bastos, 55, an unemployed Rio resident who said she cried when she first saw the news on Sunday.
The museum was her favorite place in Rio, where she went frequently as a child and used to take visitors instead of typical spots featured in postcards, such as the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf.
“It had wonderful gardens and all those dinosaurs and butterflies,” she said. “But it was so neglected. I am devastated.”
Brazilian President Michel Temer, who has been accused by opponents of starving the country’s cultural apparatus of much-needed funds, lamented the incident.
“Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost,” he said in a statement.
At some point on Monday, an angry crowd of a few dozen people gathered in front of the burned museum to protest against budget cuts, local media reported.
The mourning spread overseas, as scholars specializing in Brazilian history decried the abundant research material turned into ashes.
“There was no other collection like it in Brazil. Absolutely remarkable in its importance,” said William Summerhill, a history professor at UCLA focused on Brazil who visited the site many times and said signs of deterioration were present since at least 1987. “The original is now lost forever.”
Surrounded by Rio’s luxuriant forests, the museum struggled for years with lack of care amid a deep economic crisis. Brazil’s government has been trimming the national budget to plug a shortfall as large as 7% of total output, and cuts have been felt across the board, while all levels of government, particularly in Rio, have been engulfed in corruption scandals.
Images from an institutional video show mold taking over aged walls and sculptures, art objects tossed on the ground and improvised electric installations.
The museum was part of Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University and received a total of $121,000 a year from the Education Ministry to cover all its expenses, the museum spokesman said. This year, as of April, it had received only $14,000. The museum recently signed a contract to get $5 million from Brazil’s development bank, but the fire came before any funds were transferred, the spokesman said.
“Our thoughts go out to everyone at @MuseuNacional, and to all of Brazil — such terrible news and a devastating loss to heritage and science,” a Twitter post from the account of London’s Natural History Museum read.
Rio’s Federal University said in a statement on Monday that the federal police were investigating the causes of the fire and its “rapid propagation.”
“Brazil’s scientific and cultural heritage suffered an invaluable loss,” it said.