Rio de Janeiro, the buzzing metropolis located in the south-eastern coast of Brazil, was host to its 200-year old National Museum. In addition to being Brazil’s oldest and most historically significant museum, it was also the biggest natural museum in Latin America – containing 20 million artifacts. It was founded on 1818 by João VI, of the Imperial Royal Family of Portugal, on his arrival to the country. This year witnessed the bicentennial year for the institution – and was commemorated by hosting a series of events and activities. However, on 2nd September, 2018, a huge fire broke out in the monumental structure and managed to engulf it almost entirely – decimating a major chunk of history in the process.
Soon after the museum closed for public viewing, witnesses observed bellows of smoke emerging from the institution. Authorities state that the fire broke out around 7:30 pm local time. Soon, employees of the museum and passerby’s gathered around the structure, awaiting the arrival of firefighters. The firefighters worked all night to contain the spread of the fire and managed to subdue it by morning. By then, the museum was almost destroyed.
The National Museum was home to some rare artifacts associated with the history of the Americas. It included thousands of works from the pre-Columbian era, including mummified Andean skeletons. However, its most famous artifact was the skull and bones of a 25-year-old woman who died more than 12,000 years ago. Dubbed as “Luzia”, it was supposedly brought to Brazil by Dom Pedro I – the Portuguese prince regent who declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal. It also contained the largest meteorite ever found in Brazil, weighing in at 5.36 tons. The museum also contained some of the oldest fossils, dinosaurs, and remains found in the continent – all assumed to be lost in the fire.
Citizens have delved the blame on the government for the monumental loss. A lack of restoration funds saw the museum, once a part of Rio’s Federal University, fall into despair. Years of neglect resulted in the building being dilapidated. However, questions were also asked regarding the safety procedure of the building. Roberto Robaday, Rio’s fire chief, iterated that the firefighters didn’t have enough water at first because two of the nearby hydrants were dry. They managed to subdue the fire by bringing in water from the nearby lake. Robaday said, “This is an old building, with a lot of flammable material, lots of wood and the documents and the archive itself.”
The incident was an immense loss to Brazilian science, history, and culture. Brazilian President, Michel Temer, expressed his condolences by stating, “The loss of the National Museum’s collection is insurmountable for Brazil. Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost.” Marco Aurelio Caldas, a veteran employee at the museum, stated, “This is 200 years of work of a scientific institution, the most important one in Latin America. Everything is finished. Our work, our life was all in there.”
While the fire didn’t cause any physical injuries, the agonizing loss of history was immense. Brazil, only 500 years old, had kept most of its history alive in the museum. A few people also saw the fire as a metaphor for the country, which has more than 12,000 unemployed citizens at present.