The fire that destroyed Brazil’s national museum just months after the institution celebrated its 200th anniversary is a tragedy whose impact has been felt beyond the borders of the South American country.
Initial estimates indicate 90 per cent of the institution's 20 million exhibits have been destroyed. Images of the smouldering ruins in Rio de Janeiro leave one wondering how anything survived.
Among the treasures presumed lost are Luzia, the oldest skeleton discovered in the Americas, priceless artefacts from indigenous peoples who have since disappeared and most of Latin America's largest natural history collection. Former environment minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva did not exaggerate when she called the disaster "a kind of lobotomy of Brazilian history".
Public anger within Brazil at the loss has been mixed with a grim sense of inevitability. The blaze was just the latest and most high profile of a series of fires to strike cultural institutions in the country in recent years. Even reports that fire hydrants at the scene lacked water, allowing the conflagration to grip the entire building before water trucks could be called up, caused little surprise.
Instead they confirmed what many Brazilians have long sensed, that the country’s public services have been abandoned by a corrupt and incompetent state.
In the tragedy’s aftermath much has been made of the cuts in recent years to the museum’s funding due to the fiscal crisis gripping the country. But despite the squeeze on public finances caused by a ruinous recession the real issue is one of priorities. The meagre resources made available for cultural institutions have been brutally contrasted with wasteful public spending elsewhere. Last year Brazil’s congress found more money to serve itself coffee than it did for the national museum.
Sunday’s disaster is yet another wake-up call for politicians.
Scarcity demands those funds that are available are better spent.
Failure to do so risks accelerating the alarming decline in support for democracy among Brazilians fed-up with a political class that sips coffee while the nation’s historical patrimony goes up in flames.