Brazil’s oldest and most important museum has been consumed by a fire and most of the 20 million items in its archives are believed to have been destroyed.
The fire at Rio de Janeiro’s 200-year-old National Museum began after it closed to the public on Sunday and raged into the night, reported The Guardian. There were no reports of injuries, but the loss to Brazilian science, history and culture was incalculable, said two of its vice-directors.
“It was the biggest natural history museum in Latin America. We have invaluable collections. Collections that are over 100 years old,” Cristiana Serejo, one of the museum’s vice directors, told the G1 news site.
Luiz Duarte, another vice-director, told 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.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the fire began. The museum was part of Rio’s Federal University but had fallen into disrepair in recent years. Its impressive collections included items brought to Brazil by Dom Pedro I – the Portuguese prince regent who declared the then-colony’s independence from Portugal – Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts, Luzia, a 12,000 year-old skeleton and the oldest in the Americas, fossils, dinosaurs and a meteorite found in 1784. Some of the archive was stored in another building but most of the collection is believed to have been destroyed.
Brazilian President Michel Temer, who has presided over cuts to science and education as part of a wider austerity drive, called the losses “incalculable”. “Today is a tragic day for the museology of our country,” he tweeted. “Two hundred years of work research and knowledge were lost.”
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 gathered 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.”