Rio on Fire

Millions of treasures from Brazil’s past went up in flames. The country’s future is at risk, too.

People watch as a fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 2, 2018.
REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

On Sunday night, a fire ripped through Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, destroying the country’s most valuable storehouse of natural and anthropological history within hours.

Most of the 20 million items housed inside—including the skull of Luzia, the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas; one of the world’s largest archives of South America’s indigenous cultures; more than 26,000 fossils, 55,000 stuffed birds, and 5 million insect specimens; and a library of more than 500,000 books—are thought to have been destroyed.

“The loss of the National Museum collection is incalculable for Brazil,” President Michael Temer said on Twitter on Sunday night. “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost.” Brazilians mourned on social media; Cariocas watched the inferno from the streets. Outside, scientists clutched artifacts and records they’d grabbed before the building was consumed.

The building was home to the Brazilian emperors of the 19th century. The country’s independence was signed there. It’s a little like if the U.S. lost Independence Hall and the Smithsonian overnight.

A plaque marking a time capsule that was buried at the entrance of the museum in 1972, on the 150th anniversary of Brazilian independence, seems now to function as an unheeded warning: “All those who pass, protect this slab, because it guards a document that reveals the culture of a generation and a mark in the history of a people who knew how to build their own future.”


The outlook is dimmer now. Brazil is a couple years into an economic austerity program that has frozen funding for safety net programs, health care, and education on the heels of the country’s worst-ever recession. The situation is worse in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which has been all but broke since the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Hospitals have been short on supplies. Crime is surging, cutting into a decade of public safety gains. Public-sector workers have gone months at a time without paychecks.

And then there are the universities: In Rio, thousands of research projects have been cancelled as federal and state support for research vanishes. Undergraduate courses at Rio de Janeiro State University were shut down for months. And at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which oversees the National Museum, scientists and graduate students are fleeing for jobs abroad, or working without pay. Last year, Nature reported that Ph.D. students in the quantum-optics department at UFRJ were afraid to turn on the lab’s main laser: “If it breaks—and lasers do break—that’s it. There’s no money to replace it.” the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences told the magazine.

Last year, the National Museum was forced to shut briefly when the federal university couldn’t pay its contracts. The museum’s annual maintenance budget is just $126,000 in U.S. dollars, according to a May interview with director Alexander Kellner, but because of budget cuts the museum had not received the full sum since 2014. Exposed wires and flaking paint were everywhere. This spring, 10 of its 30 halls were closed. A popular room featuring a Maxakalisaurus skeleton was closed after a termite infestation. The museum was crowdfunding its reopening.


Upon the institution’s 200th anniversary this year, the National Bank of Social and Economic Development agreed to finance a $5 million maintenance package—but the money would not be available until October. Kellner estimated a full rehabilitation would have taken $70 million.
A vice director, Cristiana Serejo, said the plan had been to install fire protections. “People were conscious of how fragile the museum was,” she said after the fire. “But we didn’t have time.”

It’s impossible to separate the museum’s demise, and its battle for funding, from the larger crisis of public funding in Rio. The newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that the fire hydrants around the museum didn’t work.* Firefighters had to pump water from a nearby lake.

The conflagration, then, is more than a metaphor for Brazil’s austerity politics—it’s the result of them. At least Caesar burned the Library of Alexandria by accident.

Since the country is preparing for a presidential election next month, accusations and defenses were being prepared as the fire still raged. The minister of culture, Sérgio Sá Leitão, said the tragedy was the result of “negligence in previous years.”

“The catastrophe that struck the National Museum this Sunday is the equivalent to a lobotomy of Brazilian memory,” argued Marina Silva, the leading left-wing presidential candidate and history professor, on Twitter. “Unfortunately, given the state of financial deprivation of the [Federal University of Rio de Janeiro], and other public universities in the last three years, this was a tragedy foretold.”


In Rio, meanwhile, the cityscape is littered with reminders of what could have been. As the National Museum languished in the city’s neglected Zona Norte, expenditures for the Olympics drained enormous amounts of funds from the public coffers; today, a bridge built for Olympic bus traffic is used primarily by fishermen. Meanwhile, tens of millions went towards the Museum of Tomorrow, a steel rib cage on the waterfront designed by the budget-busting Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The museum is a glitchy and dull tool of neighborhood revitalization, reflecting a long-standing Brazilian obsession with looking ahead. “Brazil,” the joke goes, “is the country of the future and always will be.”

Supporting teachers, archivists, librarians, and scientists rarely produces any high-profile ribbon cuttings. No Brazilian president had been to the Museu Nacional since Juscelino Kubitschek, whose term ended in 1961, toured its halls. Still, the decimation of higher ed institutions—museums and all—is stunting Brazil’s social progress. The students who have borne the brunt of the cuts tend to be those from poorer families.

That the future starts with inquiries into the past, at dusty centers of learning and research, is a commencement-speech cliche. In the case of natural history museums, it is also literally true. Fossil and specimen collections offer a precious glimpse at how giant atmospheric changes affect the lives of plants and animals. That record, too, went up in smoke on Sunday.

Correction, Sept. 10, 2018: This article originally misspelled the name of the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

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