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Museum Inferno: Lessons from the Hellish Devastation at National Museum of Brazil

By now you have probably heard about the after-hours fire that yesterday ripped through the entire Museu Nacional (National Museum) of Brazil. The night guards in that eminent Rio de Janeiro institution reportedly escaped safely; the collections did not.

Here is the 200-year-old museum, in better times:

National Museum of Brazil
Wikimedia Commons photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira

An editorial today in O Globo, the Rio-based newspaper, called this disaster, a “predictable tragedy”:

The tragedy of the National Museum reinforces the need for governments, politicians and society to make [budgetary] choices. It is indisputable that the diverse collections of national history, of culture, need to be protected. For this, money is needed, but, above all, an awareness of the importance of Culture, Science and History.

In a trillion-dollar budget like Brazil’s, it is possible to find the resources for this, but only if there is the understanding that there is a lot of money badly spent by the State….The degradation of the Museum and finally its transformation into ashes, a foreseeable disaster, are a shrill warning for the urgency of revising budget priorities, focused on costing expenses [emphasis added].”

This is an imperative that all parties in Brazil’s presidential election, scheduled to be held next month, should get behind. What’s more, any other governments or cultural institutions that have slept on basic infrastructure repairs and safety provisions in order to shave expenses should consider this their wake-up call.

Several published accounts (especially this detailed report by Michael Greshko of National Geographic) have indicated that lack of funding had delayed needed fixes for the museum’s deteriorating physical plant. Greshko enterprisingly reached out on Twitter last night for tips on his developing story:

At this writing, the cause of the blaze is still undetermined. What seems indisputable (with the benefit of hindsight) is that better systems for fire protection were needed (even if arson turns out to have been the cause). Several reports said that firefighting was hampered by an inadequate supply of water to fight the blaze, requiring reliance on a nearby lake.

Although early reports suggested that conflagration resulted in total loss, O Globo reported today that “the museum’s management still does not know how much was lost in the massive fire.” (Translations from the Portuguese newspaper are courtesy of Google Translate.) Some firefighters attempted to retrieve objects from the burning building; other objects were housed offsite. But horrific videos (like the one below, from the BBC) suggest that the 20 million-object collection was catastrophically affected:

Here’s a link to many highlights from the museum’s collection, which include these:

Memento mori: “Luzia,” the oldest skeleton discovered in the Americas (about 11,500 years old)

Coffin of Sha-amun-en-su, Egypt, about 750 BC
“Examination performed on the mummy revealed the presence of amulets inside the coffin, among them a heart-beetle.”

Globular Vessel, Konduri Culture, Brazil

The collection’s wide-ranging scope, as described on its website, includes these categories:

—Egyptian objects, first acquired by the Emperor Dom Pedro I

—Greco-Roman art and artifacts of Empress Teresa Cristina

—Paleontology, including the Maxakalisaurus topai dinosaur

—Biological Anthropology, including “Luzia” (pictured above)

—Ethnology, including indigenous culture, Afro-Brazilian culture and cultures of the Pacific

—Zoology, including collections of conchas, corals, butterflies and other insects

There’s a powerful lesson to be learned from this tragedy: Even in times of budgetary constraint, cultural institutions must not be shortchanged when it comes to financial support for their most basic function—the protection of the irreplaceable objects of cultural and scientific importance that are in their care. This loss should be a wake-up call not only for Brazil but for all countries that must prioritize the use of limited resources.

Surprisingly the most clueless response I’ve seen to this situation came from International Council of Museums (ICOM), in this excerpt from its statement reacting to the disaster:

ICOM is working to mobilize its Standing Committee on Disaster Risk Management (DRMC), its International Committees for University Museums (UMAC), Documentation (CIDOC), and Natural History (NATHIST), and other pertinent actors in our network to channel all kinds of expertise necessary to overcome this disaster [emphasis added].

There is no way to “overcome” the ravages of a fire that has consumed an entire museum. Almost certainly, the bulk of the collection is irrevocably gone, beyond hope of restoration. That said, reports indicate that two objects, accustomed to withstanding fiery heat, managed to survive unscathed.

O Globo reports, “Two meteorites resisted the flames, among them the Bendegó, the largest ever found on Brazilian soil”:

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