After Rio Museum Fire, Questions About Cause, What Survived

The Associated Press
By The Associated Press
September 4, 2018Worldshare

RIO DE JANEIRO—Forensic investigators and researchers awaited access Sep. 4 to the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, gutted in a fire, to find out how the blaze began and what remains of the 20 million artifacts that made the museum one of the most important in Latin America.

After a fire tore through the museum Sep. 2, engineers were doing tests on the structure to make sure it wouldn’t collapse. Authorities had expressed concern on Sep. 3 that internal walls and parts of the roof were weak.

The museum held Latin America’s largest collection of historical and scientific artifacts, and officials suggested that the damage could be catastrophic, with one official telling a Brazilian news outlet that as much as 90 percent may have been destroyed.

protest outside brazil rio museum
Students and National Museum employees protest outside the institution after it was gutted by an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Recriminations flew over who was responsible for the loss of at least part of Latin America’s largest archive of historical artifacts, objects and documents. (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

The cause of the fire was not known. Federal police will investigate since the museum was part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. But protesters, commentators and museum directors themselves said years of government neglect had left the museum so underfunded that its staff had turn to crowdfunding sites to open exhibitions. In another example of struggling public services, firefighters initially struggled to contain it because the hydrants closest to the museum did not work. Instead, trucks had to gather water from a nearby lake.

Roberto Leher, rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said it was well known that the building was vulnerable to fire and in need of extensive repairs. In fact, the institution had recently secured approval for nearly $5 million for a planned renovation, including an upgrade of the fire-prevention system, but the money had not yet been disbursed.

Protest after Brazil Rio Museum Fire
Students and National Museum personnel protest outside the museum which suffered an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. The signs in Portuguese read: “The museum is ours,” and “The museum is not merchandise.” Recriminations flew over who was responsible for a huge fire that destroyed of at least part of Latin America’s largest collection of historical artifacts and documents. (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

On Sep. 3, officials promised $2.4 million to shore up the building and promised to rebuild the museum.

People after museum fire in Rio Brazil
Minister of education Rossieli Soares, center, and the minister of the culture Sergio Sa Leitao, left, arrive at the National Museum after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. (AP/Leo Correa)

“Those saying that the museum will be rebuilt are not telling the truth,” said Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Braganca, an heir to Brazil’s last emperor. “The building could be rebuilt, but the collection will never again be rebuilt. Two hundred years, workers, researchers, professors that dedicated in body and soul (to the museum) … the work of their life burned due to the negligence of the Brazilian state.”

Brazil Rio Museum Fire Protest
Students and National Museum personnel break past a police barrier to protest on the property of the museum which suffered an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

The museum, whose main building was once home to the royal family, had extensive paleontological, anthropological and biological specimens. It also contained a skull called Luzia that was among the oldest fossils ever found in the Americas. It held an Egyptian mummy and the largest meteorite ever discovered in Brazil—one of the few objects that officials could confirm had survived. Some parts of the collection were held at others sites and thus spared.

Brazil museum entrance after fire
A meteorite on exhibit is seen inside the entrance of the National Museum after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Firefighters dug through the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum on Monday, a day after fire gutted the building, as the country mourned the irreplaceable treasures lost and pointed fingers over who was to blame. (AP/Leo Correa)

Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, said that anything held in the main building was likely destroyed, and Cristiana Serejo, a vice-director of the museum, told the G1 news portal that maybe around 10 percent of the collection had survived.

For many in Brazil, the state of the 200-year-old natural history museum quickly became a metaphor for what they see as the gutting of Brazilian culture and life during years of corruption, economic collapse and poor governance.

Firefighters after Brazil Rio Museum Fire
Firefighters stand in front of the National Museum after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Firefighters dug through the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum on Monday, a day after fire gutted the building, as the country mourned the irreplaceable treasures lost and pointed fingers over who was to blame. (AP/Leo Correa)

Brazil has struggled to emerge from a two-year recession and seen its political and corporate elite jailed in Latin America’s largest corruption investigation. The country has been riven with deep political divisions following the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff.

By Peter Prengaman and Sarah DiLorenzo

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