Brazil Museum Fire Leaves Ashes, Recrimination and Little Else


RIO DE JANEIRO — The stately national museum, once home to Brazil’s royal family, was still smoldering at sunrise on Monday when scores of researchers, museum workers and anthropologists began gathering outside, dressed in black.

Some sobbed as they began taking stock of the irreplaceable losses: Thousands, perhaps millions, of significant artifacts had been reduced to ashes Sunday night in a devastating fire. The hall that held a 12,000-year-old skeleton known as Luzia, the oldest human remains discovered in the Americas, was destroyed.

Hundreds of residents joined them beneath an overcast sky that matched the national mood. They had come not only to mourn but also to protest Brazil’s near-abandonment of museums and other basic public services. Many saw the fire as a symbol for a city, and nation, in distress.

“It’s a moment of intense pain,” Maurilio Oliveira, who has worked as a paleoartist at the National Museum of Brazil for 19 years, said as he stood in front of the ravaged building. “We can only hope to recover our history from the ashes. Now, we cry and get to work.”

Just a few years ago, Rio de Janeiro appeared to be on the cusp of a golden era. As it prepared for the 2016 Olympics, the city underwent a multibillion-dollar transformation. Real estate prices soared, the public transit system was revamped and cranes towered over much of the city.

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The museum housed “Luzia,” the oldest human remains discovered in the Americas.CreditRenzo Gostoli/Associated Press

It was supposed to be Brazil’s shining moment on the world stage. Instead, a vast corruption scandal that has tarred countless national figures, combined with a devastating recession, set in motion a period of political instability. Soon, those dreams seemed little more than a mirage.

In recent years, state and city governments in Brazil have failed to pay police officers and doctors on time. Public libraries and other cultural centers have shut down. The ranks of the unemployed and homeless have swelled.

Perhaps no other part of Brazil has felt the whiplash quite as intensely as Rio de Janeiro. Early this year, as deadly violence soared, its governor took the unprecedented step of asking the federal government to put the military in charge of public safety.

The museum itself was not spared, falling into disrepair as the country struggled. It got so bad, local news media reports said, that professors who worked at the museum resorted to collecting money to help pay for cleaning services. Beyond a few fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, the museum did not have a fire-suppression system, officials said.

Outside the ruins of the museum Monday morning, Emmanuele Medeiros, 19, a history student who had come to join the protests, lamented what has happened to her country.

“The city was reduced to ashes,” Ms. Medeiros said. “There are no doctors in the hospitals; teachers in schools don’t make a living wage. It’s very sad because it could have all been avoided if it wasn’t for all this corruption.”

It took more than six hours for 80 firefighters from 21 stations to extinguish the blaze. On Monday, they scoured through piles of ashes searching for salvageable pieces from a museum that had housed a trove of indigenous artifacts, as well as Latin America’s pre-eminent collection of Egyptian mummies and Roman frescoes from the ancient city of Pompeii.

Cristiana Serejo, the deputy director of the museum, told reporters on Monday afternoon that about 10 percent of the museum’s collection had been spared. Among the surviving materials were a large meteorite and a portion of the zoology exhibit.

Mr. Oliveira, the paleoartist, said museum officials were all but resigned to the loss of the Luzia remains — perhaps the museum’s most iconic piece.

“We are strongly hoping that she survived, but it’s very difficult,” he said. “The skull is very fragile. The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it.”

The fire wiped out years worth of research by botanists, marine biologists, paleontologists and entomologists. Upon hearing that the compound was on fire, some employees, including Ms. Serejo, rushed inside and managed to save some items from their work stations as the fire spread.

Officials said the blaze may have been caused by a paper balloon propelled by a small flame that may have landed on the museum’s roof. Such balloons are illegal, but are commonly launched during celebrations across Brazil. Investigators were also exploring whether a short circuit in a laboratory may have been the culprit.

Firefighters were hampered by the type of infrastructure breakdowns that are all too common in this megacity, where raw sewage often seeps into the ocean and the streets. The fire hydrants closest to the museum didn’t have water, which forced firefighters to dredge water from a nearby pond, they said.

Ms. Serejo also said the smoke detectors in the building had not been working.

Sérgio Sá Leitão, Brazil’s culture minister, acknowledged that the recession had hollowed the coffers of several museums in the country. The fire, he said, occurred just weeks before the National Museum was to receive $5 million for an overhaul that included a fire-suppression system.

“Of course we had a gigantic deficit, but we have been trying to solve the problems,” he said in an interview.

Though many protesters criticized the federal government, which funds the museum, Mr. Sá Leitão argued that mismanagement, rather than slashed budgets, was primarily what made it so vulnerable to a fire.

Unlike many cultural institutions of its kind, the National Museum is not run directly by the federal government but by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The museum’s director, Alexander Kellner, told reporters that his staff has struggled to keep up the institution since its budget was first cut in 2014.

“This is the genesis of your country, yours, yours, my country — do you understand?” Mr. Kellner, looking indignant, told reporters outside the museum on Monday morning. “We need society to help us. A part of our heritage was taken from us. Don’t let us lose our history, because it’s the history of Brazil. Of all of you.”

Mr. Sá Leitão responded to the director’s outrage with scorn, suggesting he should quit. “Managers have to take responsibility,” the minister said.

Founded in 1818 by King John VI of Portugal, the National Museum was Brazil’s oldest scientific institution and served as a backdrop to some of the turning points in the nation’s history. The palace that would become the museum’s main building was home to two emperors and a king. It was where Brazil’s independence decree was signed in 1822.

Giovana Xavier, 39, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Teachers College, remembers being dazzled by her first visit to the museum, when she was 5. Later, she took delight in taking her son.

“For many people in my family, it was the first and only museum they ever visited,” she said. “Along with the museum’s collection, which is immeasurable, there is the important loss of building historical awareness in children.”

Natan Campos, 37, a street sweeper who works at the park that surrounds the museum, said such calamities were the byproduct of the systemic neglect of cultural institutions in Brazil.

“The corruption that affects our health, our education, makes me sick,” he said. “But the feeling I have about the museum is sadness. We are forgetting our history. This amplifies our ignorance.”

Still, Mr. Kellner, the museum director, sought to find a whiff of hope in the resilience of the meteor known as Bendengó, which was among the few items spared.

“It’s there, Bendengó,” he said, pointing to the museum. “As it resisted, we too shall resist.”



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