Brazil museum fire: ‘It is as if the Louvre had burnt down’

Public fury over official ‘neglect’ after National Museum in Rio destroyed in blaze

A 200-year-old museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has been gutted by a large fire, putting 20 million historical items, including the oldest known skeleton in the Americas, at risk. Video: Tania Dominici/Reuters

 

Public fury has swiftly followed a blaze which has destroyed Brazil’s National Museum, home to the the largest anthropological and natural history collection in Latin America, as academics blamed the disaster on years of official “neglect” of the 200-year-old institution.

“It is 200 years of history lost,” the museum’s deputy director, Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, said on local television. “It is as if the Louvre or Natural History Museum in London had burnt down,” he said.

Founded in 1818 by King John VI of Portugal as the Royal Museum, the institution is the oldest of its kind in Brazil, with an archive made up of more than 20 million items. Among the items feared lost in the blaze is Luzia, the oldest skeleton discovered in the Americas.

The fire broke out at about 7.30pm on Sunday and quickly engulfed much of the building, which is located near the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. It took fire services six hours to bring the blaze under control. Firemen said they were hampered by a lack of water pressure in hydrants near the building, forcing them to call up water trucks. Aerial images of the scene taken on Monday morning showed most of the museum reduced to a smouldering ruin.

The museum’s director, Alex Kellner, said that for more than a decade there has been no money forthcoming from authorities for the maintenance of the building. “The responsibility is the federal government’s, there is no point saying otherwise,” he told reporters at the blaze. “This is the result of how we treat our history.”

Negligence

An anthropologist who studied the 12,000-year old Luzia skeleton said such a devastating fire was inevitable given official negligence. “The doubt wasn’t whether something like this would happen, but when. The museum was rotting. It is a direct consequence of the neglect by public authorities,” Walter Neves told local media.

The museum’s directors had used the 200th anniversary of the institution in June to highlight the precarious state of the building after years of budget cuts. Since 2015 they have had a plan to update the building’s anti-fire systems but it was only earlier this year that Brazil’s national development bank earmarked €4.5 million for the restoration, with work yet to start.

Speaking after the fire, the country’s culture minister Sérgio Sá Leitão admitted “certainly this tragedy could have been avoided”.

Sunday’s fire has once again put the focus on the poor maintenance of many of many Brazilian museums. In 2015, the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo was devastated by fire exacerbated by flaws in the building’s fire prevention plan.

Fires also destroyed part of the archive at the Cinemateca Brasileira, one of the largest film libraries in South America, and the auditorium of the Memorial to Latin America cultural complex in recent years.

As well as a large number of badly neglected public buildings, Rio has numerous abandoned sports arenas which were erected at great cost.