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Burning questions

Brazil’s National Museum being destroyed by fire on the night of 2nd September

Brazil’s National Museum being destroyed by fire on the night of 2nd September

Cristiana Serejo, the deputy director of Brazil’s National Museum, was at her home in Rio de Janeiro on the evening of 2nd September when her phone started to light up with messages: the museum was on fire. Barely half an hour later she was running towards the burning building. At this stage just two or three fire engines were there, with a handful of firemen and a single ladder.

“The firemen didn’t know exactly how to deal with the situation,” says Serejo. She took advantage of the confusion to slip past them before they had the chance to establish a perimeter. The fire had taken hold in a distant part of the building, and she knew the layout well: she headed through a side door with her husband and ten-year-old son in tow. As curator of the museum’s crustacean collection, she knew where she had to go first, to try to save her exhibits before the fire reached them.

Throughout the night the blaze grew in ferocity, steadily working its way through the entire building and consuming almost everything in its path. Researchers, firemen and horrified people around the country watched helplessly as a sea of flames hollowed out the iconic building, turning its three floors of treasures into smoking piles of ash.

Founded in 1818, Brazil’s National Museum grew from a motley assortment of curiosity cabinets into one of the most important centres for academic research in South America. Housed in the imperial palace, the centrepiece of the picturesque Quinta da Boa Vista park in the north of Rio de Janeiro, it eventually amassed a collection of over 20 million items from around the world. In 1946 it was incorporated into the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

In recent decades, however, the museum’s glory had begun to fade. Peeling paint, water damage and a persistent termite infestation made the institution a degraded and potentially hazardous place to keep such an important collection of artefacts. Various plans were mooted to create a new building to house them while the imperial palace’s aesthetics, safety and security were upgraded – but they all came to nothing. Then in June 2018 came news that a chunk of funding had finally been approved, coinciding with celebrations to mark the museum’s 200th anniversary. A grant of 21.7 million reals (£4.5 million) from the Brazilian Development Bank would make a difference – although it would not be enough to resolve all the underlying problems. But the money would never be spent. Less than two months later the museum had been destroyed by flames.

As you walk up the tree-lined drive leading up to the museum, it seems for a moment as though everything is still intact. But drawing closer, the destruction becomes painfully clear. Huge barriers form a white wall around the entire complex. Two large cranes poke out over the top of the building, turning gently as if nudged by the wind. The windows are all open, their white shutters gone, and black marks above them show where the fire licked out as it burnt through the interior.

The teams of federal police who spent many weeks inside the museum have now left. No official conclusions about the cause of the blaze have been ventured, but early speculation focused on an electrical short-circuit or a floating sky lantern landing on the building. The doors are still shut to most of the outside world. Even museum researchers have to go through several checkpoints before reaching the rescue area, where the clean-up mission has begun. They tell a grim story of piles of masonry debris, charcoal, twisted metal and ash covering the floor. In a museum that was once filled with colour, the interior is now a mottled mixture of black, grey and rust.

Most of the internal structure was wood, and it was torched completely. The plaster burned off the walls, as did a Roman fresco that had survived the volcano at Pompeii. The three levels have vanished, leaving gaping holes from floor to sky as if the building had been ripped through by strategically placed bombs. “It’s hard to identify most of the rooms as the walls that divided them no longer exist,” says Murilo Bastos, an archaeologist at the University of Rio de Janeiro who has been working at the museum for over a decade.

Researchers are working closely with an excavation company, which is stabilising walls and removing debris. Eventually, the real excavation work will start, a sort of archaeological dig within the museum, to see what can be recovered from the wreckage. The destruction was quick; the process of renovation will be painstakingly slow.

Students and employees gather on 3rd September to protest against the government after the destruction of Brazil’s National Museum

The morning after the fire, a crowd of furious protesters, mostly employees and students, gathered around the museum. Their anger was mainly directed at the government, which they blamed for prolonged and excessive cuts in funding and a complacent attitude towards the museum’s preservation. As the protesters tried to enter the grounds, police fired tear-gas and hit them with batons.

In 2014 Brazil had entered into what would become the worst recession in its history. As a fiscal crisis took hold, swingeing cuts fell on most sectors of the economy. Science wasn’t spared. Then in 2017, President Michel Temer slashed an already meagre federal science budget of $1.8 billion by a further 44 percent. Many research institutions struggled to pay basic bills. A group of 23 Nobel laureates wrote to the president warning of a brain drain among young researchers.

Some academics have suggested that the drop in funding for scientific research and institutions reflects an underlying apathy towards science in the country. “In Brazil, science is still not yet perceived as something that will make the country move forward,” says Hugo Aguilaniu, president of the Serrapilheira Institute, a recently created private-funding initiative for scientific research in the country. Aguilaniu claims that a lack of public interest meant that there was limited pressure on government to keep up science budgets, which in turn contributed to the degradation of the museum, whose funding was cut in half during the financial crisis.

The museum had no sprinkler system and only a few extinguishers. On the night of the fire, water in nearby hydrants quickly ran dry. The directors led firemen to an internal reservoir reserved for emergency situations but even this wasn’t enough. The fire teams resorted to getting water from a nearby lake, but the trips to collect it took half an hour each time, and the flames took hold too fast for the strategy to be effective. Moreover, large deposits of alcohol – used for things like preserving invertebrate specimens – were dotted throughout the building. The fire teams were hesitant to try to remove them, for fear of triggering explosions. In the end, these flammable pockets exacerbated the blaze.

“Fossil records spanning millions of years vanished, as did skeletons of megafauna, from sabre-toothed tigers to whales”

In February 2018, the directors had become concerned about the possibilities of a fire. As a result, researchers in the museum had learned how to use extinguishers and practised evacuations. But in the face of such a fierce blaze these preparations made no difference. “Everyone was responsible in some way,” says Serejo. “Us, the fire department, the municipality, the government…”

Thanks to her brave efforts on the night of the fire, Serejo managed to save almost her entire collection of crustaceans, along with the projects of about 50 students from her department. Other parts of the museum’s collection had been moved into nearby buildings in past decades: the main library, vertebrate collections and many of the museum’s corals are all safe.

While it was originally thought that around 90 percent of the palace’s collection had been lost, a series of items have since been uncovered. In late October, the skull of Luzia, Latin America’s oldest human fossil, dating back 12,500 years, was found safe inside a metal box. Heat-resistant materials like ceramics and minerals endured, as did the 5,000 kilo Bendegó meteorite found in the state of Bahia. Hope remains that most of the geological collection remains somewhere amongst the rubble.

The true extent of the losses won’t be known for months but it’s clear that many researchers have lost their life’s work. Vast arachnology and entomology collections disappeared. Fossil records spanning millions of years vanished, as did megafauna skeletons, from sabre-toothed tigers to whales. Archaeological collections including ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts were almost certainly destroyed.

“The fire erupted during one of the most divided, heated and violent presidential campaigns in Brazil’s history”

Some academics have found it hard to come to terms with the destruction of the museum. “All I felt was rage,” says Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, a professor of ethnology at the University of Rio de Janeiro, recounting his experience of the night of the fire. Souza Lima had spent decades in the museum, studying the history of indigenous policies in Brazil. Over time, he had moved most of his own books home. But all his research material went up in flames. “The whole room where I worked for 34 years was destroyed – tables, chairs, bookshelves, computers, cameras, everything… It was a sudden, radical end of an era of my life,” he says.

The ethnology collection that he worked with, which contained the world’s largest exhibition of decorative and ceremonial artefacts from Brazil’s indigenous people, collected over 200 years, was destroyed. It included thousands of artefacts from the Amazonian region. Mantles of feathers from birds that are either extremely rare or no longer exist; tools and technologies lost as part of the colonisation of indigenous territories; pictures and illustrations from naturalists and explorers, documenting the tribes they encountered.

“It’s a big loss for everybody,” says Souza Lima. “For mankind. For science. It’s the memory of diversity and a broader sense of human existence on Earth. Those pieces are part of cosmological, emotional and historical experiences completely different from ours.” Countless taped recordings of rituals, songs and spoken word, dating back to the 1950s were all consumed in the fire. Little-known indigenous languages were lost forever.

As if it were some violent manifestation of the national mood, the fire erupted during one of the most divided, heated and violent presidential election campaigns in Brazil’s history. The bitterly fought race saw the election on 28th October of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro. His views on climate change, support for agribusiness and proposals to remove protections of the Amazon and roll back indigenous rights have led many to believe that the lands of indigenous people may soon be under threat once again. “It’s even more important for them now to inscribe themselves in the national history, to be part of a national narrative,” says Souza Lima.

Since the fire, the museum has received many messages from indigenous tribes  and efforts are under way to re-imagine the part of the museum that was devoted to indigenous life. Souza Lima says that the conversation is about how to build “a new museum with indigenous peoples, not about them. What they want to exhibit. What they want to present.”

Despite the massive loss to the country and to the scientific world, a spirit of positivity is starting to rise from the ashes of the museum, spurred on by offers of help from museums and philanthropic organisations from around the world to create a new collection. Emissaries from Spain, Italy, Canada and the UK have all been sent to give their support. Objects from Pompeii have been offered. A research project in Brazil will donate a whale skeleton. “In moments of crisis, people really help each other,” says Souza Lima.

And researchers point to the fact that although materials were lost, much of the museum’s knowledge remains in their heads. Its six graduate courses are running, with students finishing research in other institutions. “The museum is alive in people,” says Bastos. He says he was always planning to do outreach projects in Rio, teaching schoolkids about his research, but never had time. Now he does, and he still has a lot of unpublished data to talk about. Keeping the memory of the museum alive like this is now the priority, he says.

Shortly after the fire, a group of university researchers put out an appeal that went viral, asking people to send in photos they had of the exhibitions, so that future generations could appreciate what was there, and what was lost. Responses have been coming in from around the globe. “It’s nice to see people are caring about us and the whole world is trying to help. We need that. We need the support because sometimes Brazil doesn’t care much,” says Serejo. “We must look to the future.”

Yet with an unpredictable president poised to take office in January, the future for science in the country – and therefore institutions like the National Museum – is unclear. “The way that the transition is being handled, at least what we know about it, shows that anything is possible,” says Aguilaniu. “For the scientific community it cannot be perceived as good news.”

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