Brazil’s National Museum: The next day…


Funding cuts and inadequate maintenance have been blamed for the devastating fire that destroyed Brazil's most important historical and scientific museum with a collection of 20 million items.

The blaze at the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro began at about 7.30pm local time and raged into the night. There were no reports of injuries, but senior staff has described the loss to Brazilian science, history and culture as incalculable.

By Monday morning, the flames had been extinguished. As the day progressed, more and more people tried to enter the park (Quinta da Boa Vista) in which the building is housed to get a glimpse of the damage, and police eventually opened the gates. At one point, officers in riot gear fired teargas into a small, angry crowd of protesters who had gathered outside the park's entrance.

On Sunday night, as the blaze crackled through the former palace, curators and firefighters had managed to salvage a few boxes, some jars of biological specimens and a microscope. Some items had also been stored in a separate building. When firefighters searched the charred remains of the immense collection the following morning, the only item that appeared to have survived was a piece of meteorite.

Dozens of people congregated outside the gates, several of whom were clearly distraught. Others blamed the government's austerity policies and corruption. Some Brazilians saw the fire as a metaphor for their country's traumas as it struggles with rising levels of violent crime and the effects of a recession that has left more than 12 million people unemployed.

Although the cause of the fire is not still known, Brazil's culture minister, Sérgio Leitão, told the Estado de S Paulo newspaper that the blaze was likely caused by either an electrical short-circuit or a homemade, paper hot-air balloon that may have landed on the roof. While the cause of the blaze is still under investigation, government cuts and inadequate fire protection systems have been cited as key factors. Rio's fire chief, Roberto Robaday, said the two hydrants nearest the museum were dry, delaying efforts to douse the flames.

One of the museum's vice-directors, Luiz Duarte, noted that politicians were to blame for failing to support the museum and letting it deteriorate. "For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed," he said. "My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger." Duarte said also that the museum had just closed a deal with the Brazilian government's development bank, BNDES, for funds that included a fire-prevention project. "This is the most terrible irony," he added.

The Brazilian president, Michel Temer, who has presided over cuts to science and education, called the losses "incalculable".

The main building of the museum was once home to the royal family. The museum's collection contained Egyptian and Graeco-Roman artifacts, fossils, dinosaurs and 12,000-year-old "Luzia" - the oldest human skeleton in the Americas. Among them were indigenous artifacts, which showed how millions of people lived in pre-colonial times.

As The Guardian states, Mércio Gomes, an anthropologist and a former president of Brazil's indigenous agency, Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai), compared the loss to the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48BC.

"We Brazilians have only 500 years of history. Our National Museum was 200 years old. Our memory is small, but that's what we had, and it is lost forever," he wrote on Facebook. "We have to reconstruct our National Museum."

Bernardo Mello Franco, one of Brazil's best-known columnists, wrote on the O Globo newspaper website: "The tragedy this Sunday is a sort of national suicide. A crime against our past and future generations."

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