It is with great shock, sadness, and anger, that I must report one of the single greatest historical losses the world has ever seen. Sunday, September 2nd, 2018, at around 7:30 p.m., local time, the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil went up in flames, taking with it at least 20 million artifacts spanning 11,000 years of not only Brazilian history, but also Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Paleontological, Geological, Biological… Everything!
Before I go on to explain, please keep in mind that this tragedy is much more massive in terms of loss of artifacts than even the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Ancient accounts estimate the number of scrolls lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria is around 40,000. Modern scholars, such as Luciano Canfora (1990), professor at the University of Bari (Italy), have argued that the number may be much smaller, considering that some individual literary works were comprised of multiple scrolls. One of the highest estimates of the losses at Alexandria is from Aulus Gellius, in approximately 169 CE, who claimed that 700,000 scrolls were burned during the sack of Alexandria (Canfora, 1990); still nowhere close to 20 million! So what happened? How and why did this literal palace of cultural treasure burn? Brace yourself for the details, which are so shocking, they leave us wondering if this was a case of criminal negligence or criminal intent.
First, the background. The museum, located in Rio de Janeiro, is celebrating its 200th year. Founded in 1818 by King Dom João VI, it is also a research center that was incorporated into the University of Brazil (now UFRJ) in 1946. According to the National Museum of Brazil’s website, the collection had more than 20 million items covering many areas of science such as Archaeology, Ethnology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology, and Biological Anthropology.
The fire was eventually controlled late in the morning of the following Monday, but small flares continued to burn parts of the institution's facility, causing the ashes of burned documents to fall in several neighborhoods of the city. According to the press office of the museum and the fire department, there were no injuries. Researchers and officials from the National Museum met with fire officials to try to assist in trying to save the museum. The goal was to prevent the fire from reaching a part of the museum containing flammable chemicals used in the preservation of rare animal specimens.
The causes of the tragedy are still unknown. The Brazilian Federal Police will investigate, but Minister of Culture, Sérgio Sá Leitão, theorized that the fire could have been the result of a short circuit. The Civil Police has opened an investigation and will pass on the case to the Federal Police's Office of Repression of Environmental Crimes and Historical Patrimony, which will determine if the fire was criminal or not.
Much of the building's structure was made of wood, and the collection had a lot of flammable material, which made the fire spread quickly. However, other factors were at play here. For example, only four guards were on site. Also, the museum's smoke detectors were not working. Firefighters arrived at the site soon after the fire started, but according to them, the two fire hydrants near the National Museum did not have enough pressure, even though according to the University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) rector, Roberto Lehrer, there was a reserve of water in the museum. The fire commander-in-chief, Colonel Roberto Robadey Costa Junior, said that the lack of water delayed their ability to fight the fire by a half hour, leaving firefighters with little choice but to collect water from a nearby pond in a futile effort to extinguish the blaze. Today’s dawn rainfall helped to extinguish further outbreaks.
Officials say that 90% of the entire collection is gone. Treasures from the collection of the National Museum include the skull of Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas; the largest Egyptian collection in Latin America, containing mummies and rare Egyptian objects purchased by Dom Pedro I and Dom Pedro II; also Incan artifacts and Andean mummies; a large collection of Greco-Roman art and artifacts of Empress Teresa Cristina; the collections of Paleontology that include the 80 million year old fossil of the dinosaur, Maxakalisaurus topai. The 5-ton meteorite, Bendegó, the largest ever found in Brazil, is the only item left untouched after the fire. Below are the pictures of the museum after the fire.
There are countless important artifacts and documents lost forever. While it is hard to imagine entire museum exhibits burning to the ground, it is perhaps harder to imagine what other items could have been lost. What about the artifacts stored away from public viewing? The museum, as an independent part of the university, was a research institution. Countless artifacts that were not in the public view are also gone. Were they burned too? Or was this the most sophisticated art heist of all time? The details are still unfolding.
Clearly, I am not the only one with major questions here. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets once the word got out. They blamed the government and Brazilian President, Michel Temer, for not investing enough to help secure the museum in the years leading up to the fire. Instead, the government chose to take millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and 2014 World Cup. This left public institutions, like the museum, broke. At one point, the museum could no longer pay its staff.
What really happened to this museum? I will stay on this story and investigate. I will be sure to bring you updates on everything I find out.
Canfora, L. (1991). The vanished library: A wonder of the ancient world. London: Vintage.
Museu Nacional. (n.d.). Retrieved September 4, 2018, from http://www.museunacional.ufrj.br/