People watch as a fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro's National Museum destroyed by fire


Content (initial version) by Wikipedia (revision Nov. 14, 2018).

Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum was heavily damaged by a large fire which began about 19:30 local time (23:30 UTC) on Sept. 2, 2018 (Reuters; UOL; The Economist).

Although some items were saved, it is believed that 92.5 percent of its archive of 20 million items was destroyed in the fire, though circa 1.5 million items are stored in a separate building, which were not damaged (BBC).

The National Museum building burning behind the statue of Emperor Pedro II. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: Felipe Milanez)

Fire at the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, on Sept. 2, 2018. (Copyright: CC AS 4.0; Author: Felipe Milanez)First responders fighting the fire were hindered by a lack of water. Rio’s fire chief claimed that two nearby fire hydrants had insufficient water, leaving firefighters to resort to pumping water from a nearby lake. According to a CEDAE (Rio de Janeiro’s Water and Sewerage State Company) employee, although the hydrants did have water, the water pressure was very low, due to the fact that the building is on top of a hill (The Guardian; Veja). Brazil President Michel Temer claimed the loss due to the fire to be too great to have been predicted (The Economist).

Background

Museum Deputy Director Luiz Fernando Dias Daniel pointed to neglect by successive governments as a cause of the fire (Deutsche WelleG1), saying that curators “fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed” and that he felt “total dismay and immense anger” (The Guardian). The museum lacked a fire sprinkler system, although there were smoke detectors and a few fire extinguishers (Newshub; New York Times). The museum did not receive the R$ 520,000 per year necessary for its maintenance since 2014, and it closed temporarily in 2015 when cleaning and security staff could no longer be paid. Repairs to a popular exhibit hall had to be crowd-funded, and the museum’s maintenance budget had been cut by 90 per cent by 2018 (National Geograph). There were visible signs of decay before the fire, such as peeling walls and exposed wiring (Folha de São Paulo). The museum celebrated its 200th anniversary in June 2018 in a situation of partial abandonment; no state ministers attended the occasion (The Guardian; New York Times, Estado de São Paulo).

A large fire broke out shortly after the museum closed on 2 September 2018, reaching all three floors of the National Museum building (BBC; Reuters; G1). Firefighters were called at 19:30 local time (22:30 UTC) (Veja) and arrived quickly at the scene (Estado de São Paulo). However, the fire chief reported that the two fire hydrants closest to the museum had no water, and trucks had to be sent to a nearby lake (The Guardian). According to the spokesman for the fire department, the fire crews went inside the burning building to rescue artifacts, despite there being no people inside, and they were able to remove items with the help of museum staff (CNBC; BBC).

Fire at the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, on September 2, 2018. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: Felipe Milanez)

The fire was out of control by 21:00 (00:00 UTC 3 September), with great flames and occasional explosions (Terra Online), being fought by firefighters from four sectors (Agência Brasil). Dozens of people went to Quinta da Boa Vista to see the fire (Estado de São Paulo). A specialized team of firefighters entered the building at 21:15 to block areas still not hit by the flames and to evaluate the extent of the damage (ISTOÉ). However, by 21:30, the whole building had been engulfed by the fire, including exhibitions of Imperial rooms that were in the two areas at the front of the main building. The four security guards who were on duty at the museum managed to escape; first reports stated that there were no casualties, although a firefighter suffered burns to the fingers while trying to rescue the Luzia’s fossil (Agência Brasil; G1).

Two fire engines were used with turntable ladders, with two water trucks taking turns to supply water (The Guardian; ISTOÉ). The Brazilian Marine Corps also provided fire engines, water trucks, and a decontamination unit from a nearby base (Brazilian Navy). Pictures on social media showed artifacts being rescued from the burning building by firefighters and civilians (Guidoti, Marcus).

At 22:00 (01:00 UTC 3 September), dozens of museum employees joined the fight against the flames. Two floors of the building were already destroyed by this time, and the roof had collapsed (ISTOÉ). Brazilian Culture Minister Sérgio Sá Leitão suggested that it was probably caused by either an electric fault or by a sky lantern accidentally landing on the building (Reuters).

Damage to Collection

Facade with water truck. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: Lu Brito)

A building area of 13600 m² with 122 rooms were destroyed. The building was started on 1803 with luso-lebanese Elie Antun Lubbus (Arch Daily). According to museum officials, approximately 92.5 percent of the collection has been destroyed (BBC). The building was uninsured (Jewish Press).

A spokesman for the fire department reported that pieces had been recovered from the blaze, due to efforts from firefighters and workers from the museum (CBS). Information about the condition of pieces that had been displayed started being reported as early as late 2 September, when the images of items had been shared. One of these was a Roman fresco from Pompeii that had survived the eruption of Vesuvius, but was lost in the fire (ABC News).

Preservation director of the museum João Carlos Nara told reporters that “very little will be left” and that they would “have to wait until the firefighters have completed their work here in order to really assess the scale of it all” (CNN). The next day, firefighters began more salvage work inside the museum, trying to rescue what they could from beneath the charred remains of the collapsed roof (SBS News).

The collection relating to indigenous languages is believed to have been completely destroyed, including the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the extinct languages, the Curt Nimuendajú archives (papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only extant record from 1945), and the ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century (All Things Linguistic). One of the linguistic researchers, Bruna Franchetto, who returned only to see her office as a pile of ash, criticised the fact that a project to back up the collection digitally had only just received funding and barely started, asking for any student who had ever come to the museum to scan or photocopy things for projects to send a copy back (WIRED).

The fire destroyed the museum’s collection of thousands of indigenous artifacts from the country’s pre-Columbian Indo-American culture. The items include many indigenous peoples’ remains as well as relics amassed in the personal collection of Pedro II (BBC; The Guardian). This collection also featured items from present native tribes, including “striking feather art by the Karajá people”. There are only about 3,000 Karajá people left (The Guardian). Indigenous peoples expressed anger that there was no money given to a museum with indigenous history but “the city had recently managed to find a huge budget to build a brand new museum of tomorrow” (The Guardian). Cira Gonda also confirmed shortly after the fire that the Indigenous linguisticscollected had been completely destroyed, and so that original recordings of spoken word and song in dead languages have been lost, as well as other artifacts including those detailing the land and language distribution of tribes in Brazil (All Things Linguistic).

Surviving Itens

The burned facade. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: Lu Brito)

Some items survived the fire. The Bendegó meteorite from the museum’s collection of meteorites, which is the biggest iron meteorite ever found in Brazil, was unscathed (Washington Post). According to the National Geographic Society, being a “large, metallic rock” is what saved it from damage, as these qualities make it fire-resistant (BioBioChile). From images and video of salvage after the fire, at least three other meteorites also survived undamaged (The Atlantic; BBC). However another meteorite called Angra dos Reis is rediscovered among the debris. The meteorite is worth R$ 3 million and was lost in the rubble of the National Museum. With a mass 76 thousand times smaller than that of Bendegó, with mere 65 grams and 4 cm long, Angra dos Reis rock is the most valuable of the collection and was already the object of meteorite hunters. The Angra dos Reis takes its name because it was sighted by the doctor Joaquim Carlos Travassos, who passed in a boat in front of Praia Grande, in Angra and recovered it in the city of the coast of Rio de Janeiro in 1869. It was the first of a class of space travelers until very rare today. The object in smoke fell in the sea in front of the Church of Bonfim. Travassos ordered the slaves accompanying him to dive. Two pieces were rescued. One of them, with half a kilo, was entrusted to the Judge of Law of Angra dos Reis and, later, donated to the National Museum. In more than a century of research, this fragment was divided into small portions. The biggest one is buried in the rubble of the museum (Galileu Magazine; BBC). Some Meteorites were found on October 19, 2018, inclusive the Angra dos Reais, however cooked (G1).

Other fractions were lost in the experiments, but much smaller fractions of the Angra are still known, with a maximum of 2.5 grams, scattered in collections and owned by researchers. From the existing reports, Travassos presented the father-in-law with the second fragment rescued from the sea, which would have about 1 kg. Since then, the trail of this rock has been lost, but could be in the Catholic Church possession. Researchers suspect, due to the characteristics of the original stone fittings, that there is a third, possibly still submerged in the Angra sea. For more than a century, it was the only copy of which one had science. Until, in the late 1990s, other rocks were discovered or reclassified as angrito, a nomenclature given in reference to Angra dos Reis. According to The Meteoritical Society, there are only 28 known in the world. They are composed of minerals forged only at the very high temperatures of the planet’s nucleus. They are the oldest magmatic rocks we know, formed when the solar system was still a cloud of gas and dust. It is estimated that the National Museum meteorite is 4.56 billion years old. For geologists and astronomers, the little rock is a book full of clues about the origin of the sun and the planets. It was in a box in a closet (G1).

In the days following the fire, firefighters recovered several portraits from the upper floor of the museum, which had been burnt, smoke and water damaged but not destroyed. Cristiana Serejo, deputy director of the museum, also said that “part of the zoological collection, the library and some ceramics” had survived (BBC). Images were shared of research microscopes, freezers, and specimen jars being collected outside of the building by museum staff during the fire, next to a rusted hydrant (The Atlantic). During the fire, part of the Zoology department pulled out mollusksand other marine specimens, and only stopped due to the imminent danger the fire posed (New Yorker). The fire did not reach an annex of the site where vertebrate specimens were kept, but due to a loss of electricity parts of the collection could become damaged (Time).

During the salvage an intact skull that appeared to be that of Luzia Woman was found, and sent to a nearby scientific laboratory for analysis (Reuters). Due to other skulls and fragments of bones were discovered in the remains of the building prompting a need for lab testing on the found items (Time). On October 19, 2018 it was anounced that the Luzia skull indeed was found however as many fragments, which 80 % were identified as being part of the frontal (forehead and nose), side, bones that are more resistant and the fragment of a femur that also belonged to the fossil and was stored. A part of the box where Luiza’s skull was, was also recovered. Though the assembly of them was postponed (G1). The bones became white, because the earth along them were burned.

Luzia’s facial reconstitution. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: SeasSoul)

A portion of the museum’s collection, specifically the herbarium, and fish and reptile species, was housed elsewhere and has not been affected (Big Think). There was also a large scientific library within the museum, containing thousands of rare works. People on social media were reported to have found burnt pages from the library in the nearby streets (The Guardian); it was later confirmed that the library proper is housed in an adjacent building and was mostly undamaged (CNN). Some burnt pages, of unknown origin, were recovered by security guards. Nine Torah scrolls from the 15th century had previously been on display but were in the library at the time and survived (Jewish Press).

Reactions

A protester outside the museum the day after the fire; the sign reads “200 years of history, 20 million items, reduced to ashes”. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: Lu Brito)

Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, said that “the loss of the National Museum is incalculable for Brazil. Today is a tragic day for our country’s museology. Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost. The value of our history cannot be measured now, due to the damage to the building that housed the Royal Family during the Empire. It is a sad day for all Brazilians” (The Guardian; G1). His statement was echoed by Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, who called for rebuilding stating: “It’s a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they will continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the empire and the first constitution and national unity” (latimes.com).

The archaeologist Zahi Hawass says that the tragedy legitimizes the movement for the repatriation of Egyptian objects in museums around the world and that if museums are not able to guarantee the safety and conservation of the objects, the archaeologist argues that to be returned to the native land. Although the collection of the National Museum was not targeted by Egyptian archaeologists, Hawass says that the destruction of the collection strengthens the movement for the repatriation of objects and that UNESCO observes countries with overseas collections and overseas museums to control them, to ensure that objects are properly protected and restored (BBC).

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his condolences on Twitter at the event. He offered to send experts to help rebuild the museum (fox23.com).

Brazilian environmentalist and politician Marina Silva called the fire “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory” (The Guardian).

News of the fire quickly spread through the city of Rio de Janeiro, and protesters turned up at the gates in the early hours of Monday morning. Initial reports suggested that there were 500 people, forming a chain around the still-smoking building (SBS News). Some of the protesters tried to climb over fencing into the museum grounds; the police who were called to attend, in full riot gear, threw tear gas bombs into the crowds. The public were later allowed to enter the grounds (Reuters).

A group of museum studies students from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro called for the public to send in any photographs or videos of the destroyed collections. Their appeal received 14,000 videos, photos, and drawings of the museum’s exhibitions within hours (The Guardian).

Cultural institutions

The president of the National Institute of Historic and Artistic HeritageKátia Bogéa, said that “It’s a national and worldwide tragedy. Everybody can see that this is not a loss for the Brazilian people, but for the whole humanity” and commented that it was “a predictable tragedy, because we’ve known for a long time that Brazilian cultural heritage has no budget” (G1).

Museums around the world sent their condolences. In the UK, the British Library said “our hearts go out to the staff and users of [the National Museum] of Brazil” and called the fire “a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our shared global heritage” (Twitter); London’s Natural History Museum (Twitter), the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Twitter), and the Smithsonian Institution (newsdesk.si.edu) were among other institutions expressing their sorrow. The head of the Australian Museum said that she was “shocked”, “devastated”, and “distraught” (SBS News). Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities expressed both solidarity with the museum and concern over the status of more than 700 ancient Egyptian artifacts that were housed in the building. It offered to send experts, if requested by the Brazilian government, to assist the National Museum in restoring the damaged pieces (Egypt Independent).

Salvage efforts

Artist’s depiction of the planned museum roof. (Copyright: CC SA 4.0; Author: SeasSoul)

On 12 September 2018, people began implementing a plan to temporarily shelter and work with what is currently the ruins of the Museum (UOL Notícias):

  • Wooden structures, including a metallic wall, completely surrounding the São Cristovão Palace to protect what remains of the building
  • Containment measures for the building to avoid risk of landslide
  • An improvised roof to protect against rain water
  • Modules and containers outside to serve as temporary research laboratory space

This plan is expected to cost R$ 10 million, offered by Brazilian Government as an emergency budget. The contracted company to reinstall the walls of building is Concrejato at a value of R$ 8.998.057,66 (Globo) and Unesco says that the reconstruction would take 10 years to get ready (UOL). Researchers are recreating 300 parts of the collection of the National Museum, including the skull of Luzia, with 3D printers. The studies are being resumed in a laboratory of the National Institute of Technology (INT), by master’s and doctoral students of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Globo).

The museum is still alive doing some Festivals called Museu Nacional Vive or Museum lives to public in tents mounted in front of current under construction improvements to the burned headquarters, with exposition of fossils, living snakes and taxidermied animals like Pterosaurs and Armadillo among others. Museum would do a permanent exposition outside. Some opinions say it would take R$100 millions to rebuild the main dependencies. With the exception of a few metal cabinets intact, there are only charred fragments. Around 80% of the roof and 60% of the floors have been affected. The one million euro aid announced by Germany would allow the installation of laboratories for analysis of archaeological finds (Agência Nacional; Agência Brasil; Metrópolis). Museum director said there is a collective effort to rebuild the collection, pursue research, and plan the reconstruction of the institution housing six major graduate programs. He reported that classes, thesis defenses and dissertations were resumed and knowledge production did not stop. “The National Museum has lost part of its collection but has not lost the ability to create knowledge and do science,” said the director (Agência Brasil). The social anthropology library, one of the most important in Latin America and totally destroyed by the fire, has received a considerable amount of donations, including the personal library of Rio de Janeiro researcher Gilberto Velho (1945-2012), who was dean of the Department of Anthropology of the museum until his death. Museum zoologists have already gone to the field to collect new specimens in an attempt to repopulate the invertebrate collection, one of the richest (with 5 million copies only in the case of insects) and harder hit by the fire. Before a revamped headquarters is available, Kellner said the museum’s intention is to re-display its collection – still considerable – to the public. There is a collective funding campaign to allow the institution’s loan back to schools and the plan to revitalize the museum’s botanical garden so that it houses a small exhibition that would receive visitors again. “It would be an illusion, even a frivolous thing, to say that the old collection will be reconstituted, but we will continue to fulfill our role,” said the director (Notícia ao Minuto). It was also informed they plan to keep part of ruins as historical exposition with a high modern structure of equipment inside.

A digitally scanned page from the museum’s Brazilian ethnology archives. (Author: Museu Nacional (Brasil))

The Facade and the exterior of the National Museum will be preserved in the reconstruction works, but the building will be another, said the UFRJ’s dean, Roberto Leher. The recovery of the building will take into account a new concept of architecture. The cost will still depend on the concept of the museum. Technicians focus are on 3D modeling and a term of reference. New materials with low-carbon, energy-less, environmentally friendly will be used because is a science museum. It has Iphan’s endorsement (since the property is overturned) to do the reconstruction taking this model into account (O Globo). The new project could be with high roof space or with more slabs, depending the approval of R$ 100 million or € 22.610.000,00 in the budget of 2019 (Diário de Pernambuco).

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