Brazil's 200-Year-Old National Museum Containing 20 Million Artifacts Burns Down


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Onlookers watch as the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro goes up in flames on September 2, 2018. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The National Museum of Brazil, founded in 1818 and representing the heart of the nation’s historic, anthropologic, and scientific endeavors, is effectively no more. Shortly after it closed to the public on Sunday night, a fire started that has since consumed much of the institute’s 20 million items, including Luzia, an 11,500-year-old human fossil and the oldest ever found in the Americas.

It’s the country’s equivalent of having The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, or the Natural History Museum in London, turn into nothing more than cinders in a matter of hours.


Far from containing exhibitions, valuable though they may be, it was also a major research institution, with renowned experts passing on their knowledge to future generations of aspiring academics. The destruction of the Rio de Janeiro landmark, then, represents nothing less than a huge blow to the nation’s science, culture, and education.


As reported by The Guardian, Marina Silva, former environment minister and presidential candidate, said the inferno was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” Others have noted that its destruction, one that wipes out 200 years’ worth of archived research, takes a huge bite out of Brazil’s 500-year history.


The museum's website is a melancholy reminder of what the building once contained. It was packed with artifacts dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as many from the region’s indigenous cultures. It also contained unique geological, zoological, and palaeontological samples.


In preparation for its bicentenary celebrations, the museum had printed a series of collector’s coins. It had also just opened a new exhibit focusing on coral reefs, and was due to host a symposium on ancient invertebrates this October.


At this stage, no injuries have been reported, and the cause of the fire remains a mystery.

The social media accounts of museums from around the world have tweeted their sympathies in light of the horrific incident. Paris’ Louvre “expresses its deepest solidarity with the museum and its team,” adding that this is a “major loss for Brazil and World Heritage.”

Meanwhile, the staff of the British Library said that their “hearts go out to the staff and users of Museu Nacional of Brazil.” They noted that the fire was “a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our shared global heritage.”

BBC News adds that the tragedy takes on a deeper meaning when viewed through the prism of the entire city’s – and country’s – problems. Political corruption, financial woes, and an uptick in violence have led to a downturn in Brazil’s fortunes in recent times; the National Museum’s death-through-conflagration, then, looks a lot like a grim metaphor.


The Associated Press is reporting that firefighters at the scene had to get water from a nearby lake after local fire hydrants failed to work properly – something critics say the economic troubles have directly contributed to. It’s being said on social media that some of the museum’s employees are using buckets of water to try and douse some of the flames in an attempt to save even a handful of the artifacts contained within.

Marina Amaral, a restorer and colorizer of old photographs, shared an image of the largest meteorite ever found in Brazil, saying it’s one of the few pieces in the museum to survive the now-extinguished fire.


Ana Lucia Araujo, a professor of history at Howard University, emphasizes that the federal funding for the National Museum of Brazil has been declining precipitously in the past few years as part of a nationwide austerity-driven cut in the fields of science and education.


Explaining on her Twitter account that a lack of decent firefighting equipment is a situation of “museums, archives and libraries” across the country, she suggests the actions of the government will “make sure that national heritage, research, [and] education will be destroyed in a record period of time.”


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