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Rising from the ashes of Brazil's Museu Nacional fire

Brazil's Museu Nacional fire

By Cyril AlexPublished 8 months ago 5 min read
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Rising from the ashes of Brazil's Museu Nacional fire
Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

The Museu Nacional, located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the largest and oldest natural history museum in Latin America. In 2018, the museum celebrated its 200th anniversary. However, on the evening of September 2nd of the same year, an electrical fire broke out on the ground floor of the museum. As the night progressed, the fire grew into an inferno that caused extensive damage to the building and resulted in the destruction of almost all of the collections it housed. Within a span of 10 hours, it became evident that the destruction was catastrophic, with an estimated 18 million objects and specimens reduced to smoke and ash. The loss included 30,000 artifacts from indigenous Brazilian communities, as well as recordings of languages that are no longer spoken. The entire entomology collection was destroyed when the floor it was stored on collapsed.

The Museum housed a collection of 5 million specimens, including a significant number of holotypes, which serve as the sole representative of an entire species. The absence of holotypes renders future specimen identifications nearly impossible. Additionally, the Museum boasted numerous well-preserved pterosaur fossils and a plethora of other fossil discoveries spanning two centuries. While some losses have been quantified, the extent of the destruction remains immeasurable. The news of the fire was devastating. The loss of the collections in Rio de Janeiro is not limited to Brazilians or museum professionals; it represents a global theft of knowledge amassed over centuries by countless individuals, encompassing the world's histories, cultures, and the life it has sustained. In the months since the fire, I have been attempting to comprehend this loss and its aftermath. Therefore, I sought to speak with someone directly affected by these events.

During the time of the fire, Beatriz Hörmanseder, a master’s student, was employed at the museum. She was in the midst of describing a novel species of extinct crocodile, which was known from a single specimen, when the fire destroyed it along with other items. Beatriz specializes in the study of fossil crocodiles and was examining a species from the Ceará region that was markedly distinct from others in the area. The loss of this particular species was a significant setback for her research. She recalls witnessing the destruction of the specimen, which left nothing but dirt in its place.

When asked about her initial thoughts upon hearing about the fire at the National Museum, Beatriz recollects being at home when someone informed her of the incident. She spent approximately three hours watching the fire engulf every room, including the entomology collection, archaeology, and mummies. The paleontology department, where Beatriz worked, was the last to succumb to the flames. Initially, disbelief was the prevailing emotion among the museum community. However, as they began to converse, they realized the gravity of the situation.

On the morning following the fire, we were left to ponder what remained. In the aftermath, the charred remnants of books, field notes, and stories drifted down near the museum, serving as a constant reminder of the catastrophic event. Many individuals felt compelled to gather larger scraps as tokens of their connection to the museum. A social media hashtag, "Museu Nacional Vive" or "The National Museum is Alive," emerged as a means for Brazilians to track the response and recovery process. An exhibition bearing the same name was established to remind the nation that, despite significant losses, not everything was lost. Some of the museum's collections were stored in an offsite annex and remained unscathed. Alongside items from the remaining collections were artifacts salvaged from the community, serving as a reminder that a foundation for future research at the museum still exists.

Hope began to emerge elsewhere, as Luzia, one of the oldest human skeletons ever discovered in Latin America and of great importance to the museum, was thought to have been destroyed in the fire. However, news of Luzia's recovery spread across social media in the following months, and conservation work on the remains is currently underway. Today, museum staff continue to share updates on newly published research, as well as photos and stories of the museum's recovery, to keep the community informed of all progress.

The losses suffered by the Museu Nacional triggered an outpouring of international support. Germany pledged 1 million euros, and resources secured by the Brazilian authorities for reconstruction amount to more than $15 million US dollars. Other countries have donated materials, with France gifting nearly a thousand books, allowing the museum's library, which had held the most important social sciences collection in Latin America, to begin restocking their shelves. However, some researchers, such as Bea, whose primary specimen was destroyed, were faced not only with the challenge of recovering from a national tragedy but also with the task of reimagining their entire areas of research.

The Museum, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, developed an emergency program to assist students such as Beatriz. Beatriz recounts receiving support from various institutions, including the Smithsonian, which allowed her to view the paleontology collection at the American Museum and Yale Peabody Museum. This experience proved instrumental in salvaging her thesis, for which she remains grateful. In response to the devastating fire, Beatriz got a tattoo of the museum's facade on her arm as a means of coping with her loss. This act inadvertently sparked a movement among those directly affected by the fire, strengthening their shared experience. The Museu Nacional disaster had a profound impact on individuals and the global community, resulting in the loss of valuable knowledge and stories. While it is impossible to recover all that was lost, we can make conscious decisions about what we preserve today. Despite the difficulty of discussing the museum, Beatriz acknowledges its enduring presence.

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