Brazil grieves as its oldest treasures turn to ashes in National Museum fire

Firefighters tried to put out the fire at the National Museum for hours. The lack of water was a problem | Image: Screenshot from Felipe Milanez's Facebook live

Brazilians were left heartbroken after the National Museum, the country's oldest and arguably its most important, guardian of Latin America's largest natural history and anthropology collection, burned to the ground on Sunday, September 3, in a fire that raged throughout the night.

The National Museum was founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1818 by the then king of Portugal, D. João VI. It was housed in a palace of around the same period. The site had been the residence of the Portuguese and Brazilian royal families until 1889. It's also where Brazil's first National Constitutional Assembly was held.

Over its 200 years of history — the museum's anniversary was celebrated just in June this year — it assembled a collection of around 20 million items. While a complete list of destroyed items is yet to be released, treasures such the eldest human fossil found in the Americas, pieces from ancient Egypt and the original letter that abolished slavery in Brazil in 1888 have all been confirmed lost.

Some people, including the museum's staff and scientists, risked their own lives by breaking into the blazing building to retrieve some of the items.

While the number of visitors had been dwindling every year — more Brazilians visited the Louvre in 2017 than the National Museum –, online reactions following the news of the fire were plenty.

Journalist and professor Felipe Milanez live-streamed the museum as the fire was raging:

One Twitter user posted a long thread, with images, of what might be lost in the fire:

lady's Sha-Amun-in-su skiff. Egypt, Low Season, c. 750 BC

Carajás Indians. Ceramic Doll (Statuette Litxocô),no date. Ricbactas Indians. Radial crown, no date.

Yoruba people. Mask of the female secret society Gelede, no date. And there is still the building itself

A video posted by the facebook page Realidade Simulada gives an aerial view of the museum as it was before the fire:

The price of not caring

After the tragedy, people remembered how the authorities have neglected the National Museum for years. The museum is managed by the public and increasingly underfunded Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Luísa Nunes, a student of the university, remembered on Twitter that this was the sixth major fire in UFRJ's buildings since 2011.

2011, Palace of the Praia Vermelha.
2012, Faculty of Letters
2014, Laboratory of the Center for Health Sciences
2016, Rectory
2017, Student Housing
2018, National Museum

These are the buildings in the custody of UFRJ that have suffered episodes of fire in the last decade.

The state of Rio de Janeiro is also slumming through an unprecedented budget crisis: there have been ongoing cuts in public services civil servants’ salaries, including firefighters. The two hydrants nearby the museum were dry, so firefighters had to improvise by pumping water out of a nearby lake, losing 40 minutes of work in the process.

The museum's annual budget, of around 500,000 reais a year (125,000 US dollars), has suffered significant cuts over the past four years, local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo revealed in a story from May 2018. Twitter user DanPimpao posted a graph showing how much have been cutted from the museum's budget since 2013:

Budget of the National Museum from 2013 to 2018. Analyze yourselves and draw your own conclusions.

The museum on fire. Image by Felipe Milanez, used with permission.

On its 200th anniversary, its management launched a crowdfunding campaign to to reopen a relevant collection room, where was the skeleton of the Maxakalisaurus, the first large dinosaur assembled in Brazil. 58 thousand reais were collected from the initial goal of 30 thousand reais – however the ideal would be to raise 100 thousand reais.

Professor Stevens Rehen commented on Facebook:

Na festa dos 200 anos, nenhum ministro de estado compareceu. O orçamento despencou de R$ 531 mil em 2013, para R$ 54 mil em 2018.

Esse ano todo o investimento do governo no Museu Nacional foi o equivalente a 1/4 do que cada deputado de Brasília recebe por mês somente para contratar assessores.

At the 200th anniversary party, no state minister attended. The budget has plunged from R $ 531,000 in 2013 to R $ 54,000 in 2018.

This year, the government's total investment in the National Museum equals a quarter of what each Congressmen's budget to hire advisors.

A Twitter user compared the amount with other government expenses:

The annual budget of the National Museum corresponds to: – 30 ‘of electoral propaganda

- 0.0004% of the cost of renovation of Maracanã stadium

- the cost of 1 federal judge / year

- the cost to change the Senate's carpet 3 years ago.

- the price of tourmaline earrings from Sergio Cabral's jewelry collection [former governor of Rio de Janeiro, currently in jail on corruption charges]

The museum was just about to receive extra resources National Bank of Economic and Social Development from to implement a fire-safety plan. The first installment was due in October.

journalist Breiller Pires summed up the sentiment that took over Brazilians watching the building burn with little to do:

The fire of the National Museum is the merciless metaphor of a country that disparages science, knowledge and, above all, history.


  • Alba

    O texto é muito relevante diante do contexto de abandono em que vimos o Museu Nacional. Apenas gostaria de colocar em questionamento os motivos que levam o autor a versar para a língua inglesa o nome do museu e da universidade. A prática descontextualiza o local e os nomes próprios envolvidos, o que gera confusão e desvaloriza o texto. Por ser tradutora e acompanhar diversas mudanças na área, creio que esse procedimento é realmente um equívoco.

  • Javier Muñoz

    The fire must be averted, but the fire department response was a joke. Even the fire chief said “we had issues with water as our water tender trucks were empty” to say that was a childish response it`s overestimating him.

    Even a lagoon with several millions of water was at 150-200 meters, buy used only marginally with portable fire pumps.

    All over Brazil are several museums “protected” by fire departments with similar preparedness levels.

    They had at least 100 years for installing a sprinkler system, but several museum director rejected it as “it could damage contents if leaking”.

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