A great loss to the world

Brazil has suffered a terrible loss.

Brazil’s oldest and most important historical and scientific museum has been consumed by fire, and much of its archive of 20m items is believed to have been destroyed.

The fire at Rio de Janeiro’s 200-year-old National Museum began after it closed to the public on Sunday and raged into the night. There were no reports of injuries, but the loss to Brazilian science, history and culture was incalculable, two of its vice-directors said.

Imagine if the Smithsonian burned down. It’s not replaceable.

The media are reporting that the cause of this fire was neglect — the museum had “fallen into disrepair”, and that it had only recently managed to land support for a fire prevention project. I might be more favorable to conservatives if they were actually interested in preserving what the nation has, and less interested in looting what we’ve got to benefit the wealthy (I know nothing about the leanings of the Brazilian government; this is a general statement about the neglect I see when conservatives are in power in my country.)


  1. KG says

    I know nothing about the leanings of the Brazilian government

    A standard right-wing kleptocracy, which came to power through a “soft coup”, pushing out the left-wing President on claims of corruption. (I don’t know whether these were justified, but it’s quite clear her replacement is corrupt.) However it’s fair to say the Workers’ Party held the Presidency, although not a majority in Congress, for a considerable period before the soft coup, so it must share at least some responsibility for the museum’s neglect.

  2. says

    Of course it’s inexcusable for a building holding such a wealth of irreplaceable artifacts to even be capable of burning down. The Smithsonian of course consists of many different buildings, but none of them could possibly suffer such a catastrophic fire.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    My first thought was comparing it to the loss of the Library at Alexandria, and how the documentary blueprints of the pyramids the aliens left behind were burned for secrecy.
    What are the Brazilians trying to hide? What do they have hidden up their Amazon(tm). hmmm suspicious name coincidence.

    Thank you for letting me go bonkers, trying to lend humor to this devastating news of loss of artifacts irretrievably.
    * sigh *

  4. anchor says

    They leaned toward hosting the Olympics just a few years back for a paltry cost of several billions.

    It was supposed to work wonders for the economy. Just ask the recipients.

  5. David Marjanović says

    loss of artifacts

    Not just artefacts, by far. The biology and geology collections were in there, too.

  6. evandrofisico says

    After the coup, the current illegitimate federal government has massively cut science funding, with federal universities and research institutes, which account for most of Brazilian research, are almost closing. The tragedy of the loss of the Museu Nacional is just the tip of the iceberg.

  7. nomdeplume says

    Of course the loss of major artefacts is sad. But more important for the biological sciences in Brazil, and South America in general, is the loss of type specimens, and the loss of deposited collections from scientists doing ecolgical work. Conservatives, oddly, have no interest in the past (except for a few cherry picked items that can be used politically), and no interest in the future. The idea of spending some money now to prevent greater loss later is anathema to them – both on the local scale, as in this museum, and on the global scale, as in climate change.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

    From here, where there’s a link to the original Portuguese.

  9. Paulino says

    It was a horrible loss, for the world, for Brazil, and for me personally, as I took my master degree there in malacology, back in 1996. The saddest part is, given the neglect and inadequacy of the building to hold those collections, it is astounding that it hadn’t happened before, so everyone knew that those collections, artifacts, paintings, the building itself, were one small step away from disaster.

    Back when I was studying there, there was a talk about moving the collections for a former factory building nearby, while the imperial palace would only hold the exhibitions. It never happened, instead an annex was built to hold the vertebrate collections, that were thankfully untouched by the fire. So while the current government has cut the museum’s budget to 10% of what it was 5 years ago, it was never enough, the building had no fire protection at all. There were no sprinklers, no fire-proof doors, no fire-brigade, not enough extinguishers, it didn’t have a permit of the Fire Department to be open at all. But it was open anyway.

    The National Museum was seen as a burden by politicians, money spent there had no political return. No president has set foot in it since 1958. 2018 is its 200th anniversary, but no official commemorations were scheduled, other than a few vinyl signs on the walls, in fact, since may this year, there was internet funding campaign to keep the dinosaur evolution exhibit open. For the society at large, the National Museum was curio, a place that you may have visited as child, during a school trip to see a mummy, a meteorite and a giant sloth (my personal child memory was of a scary wax mask of a person with leishmaniasis). Few Brazilians really cared about it, but now that is gone, there is a general outcry. A pity.

    But thank you, PZ, for this post.

  10. nomdeplume says

    Oh, Paulino @10 – what awful extra information about this terrible event. If only there was something like a war crimes tribunal to deal with those responsible for this loss of a country’s heritage.