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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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