Brazil's 200-Year-Old National Museum Gutted By Raging Fire

The Rio-based historic and scientific center reported that most of its 20 million items are thought to be destroyed.
Shelby Rogers

Artifacts and innovations from the last 11,000 years of human history have been destroyed. Overnight, a blaze ravaged Brazil's National Museum, taking much of South and Latin Americas' historic and scientific research with it. 

Over 20 million pieces -- including priceless artwork and Egyptian mummies -- appear to have been destroyed.

The cause of the fire has not been officially determined. 

"Very little will be left," preservation director Joao Carlos Nara told Agencia Brasil. "We will have to wait until the firefighters have completed their work here in order to really assess the dimension of it all."

The museum, which recently celebrated its bicentennial birthday, caught fire at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night. By the time officials got to the scene, the damage had already been done. 

At this time, no human injuries have been reported. Employees and museum curators wept outside, and academics flocked to Rio de Janiero to console and mourn, according to news sources. 

Marco Aurelio Caldas worked in the museum for nearly a decade. He told local media "This is 200 years of work of a scientific institution -- the most important one in Latin America."

"Everything is finished," he continued. "Our work, our life was all in there."

What the museum had inside

According to the museum's website, the structure held over 20 million artifacts. The displays covered a variety of disciplines -- everything from anthropology, zoology, paleontology, geology, and more. 

One of the museum's prized possessions was "Luzia" -- the skull and bones of a 25-year-old woman dating back 11,000 years ago. Luzia is believed to be the oldest known remains discovered in Brazil. 

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“It was the biggest natural history museum in Latin America. We have invaluable collections. Collections that are over 100 years old,” Cristiana Serejo, one of the museum’s vice-directors, told the G1 news site.

Not only did the museum serve as a place to display major findings from the country's history, it also doubled as a research facility. In 1946, the Brazilian National Museum became incorporated into the University of Brazil (now UFRJ). 

The museum also housed the largest meteorite ever found in the country. The 1784 discovery weighs roughly 5.36 tons.

Trying to find hope and answers

Academics around the world are in mourning, with some likening the loss to a modern burning of the library at Alexandria. 

Brazil's Ministry of Culture Sergio Sa Leitao said the country "is in mourning." He said steps are being taken to ensure this never happens to another one of their museums.

"I have also asked for a complete evaluation of the fire preparedness conditions of every other federal museum in the country," he said, "in order to verify the steps that need to be taken to avoid another tragedy."

While an official cause has not been announced, several close to the museum suggest a history of negligence is to blame, including journalist Glenn Greenwald. 

“We Brazilians only have 500 years of history. Our National Museum was 200 years old, but that’s what we had, and what is lost forever,” said Mercio Gomes, an anthropologist and former president of Brazil's indigenous agency FUNAI on Facebook. “We have to reconstruct our National Museum.”

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