Fire rips through Brazil’s National Museum on Sunday.

AP Photo/Leo Correa

‘It was a foretold tragedy’—fire destroys Brazil’s National Museum and its prized science collections

A fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro has destroyed one of the country’s most important scientific collections. No one was injured in the fire, which broke out after the museum had closed on Sunday evening. But the blaze ravaged its massive archives and collections, numbering about 20 million items by some estimates. The museum had no sprinkler system, and limited water was available from fire hydrants when firefighters arrived.

Founded 200 years ago, before Brazil’s independence from Portugal, the museum housed ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman artifacts and important paleontology and natural history collections, including one of Latin America’s oldest human fossils: the 11,500-year-old skull called Luzia. In recent years, budget woes had plagued the museum, and scientists had warned as early as 2004 of dangerous wiring and a lack of fire protection.

“It’s an irreparable loss, not only for Brazilian science but for the world. The building can be reconstructed, restored, and everything else, but the collections can never be replaced. Two centuries of science and culture are lost forever,” said Sergio Alex Kugland de Azevedo, a paleozoologist and former director of the museum.

The full extent of the damage isn’t yet clear. Some vertebrate specimens and some of the botany collection were housed in a separate building that was not affected by the fire. But millions of specimens, including the museum’s globally important invertebrate collection, were destroyed. Aerial images showed collapsed roofs with piles of ashes and rubble inside the exterior walls that were left standing. The interior of the building was mostly wood, and safety upgrades were difficult to make because of federal rules governing historically protected sites. (The building was built in 1808 as the official residence of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil.)

The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) managed the museum with funds from the federal government, and many scientists blamed chronic underfunding for the disaster. “We all knew something like this was going to happen sooner or later; it was just a matter of time,” said anthropologist Walter Neves, a retired professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Paulo, Brazil, who described the Luzia skull. “The museum was completely abandoned, left to rot by the disdain and carelessness of public authorities. I am in complete grief,” he said. (The Luzia skull was collected in the 1970s, but remained forgotten at the museum until Neves found it 20 years later. It was kept in a metal case, so researchers say there’s a possibility it may have survived the fire.)

Others shared Neves’s anger and sadness. “It was a foretold tragedy,” says herpetologist Hussam Zaher of USP’s Museum of Zoology, who is originally from Rio and started his scientific career at the National Museum. “The museum never got the recognition that it deserved.”

Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist who recently became director of the museum, used its 200-year anniversary celebrations in June to again sound the alarm, saying that the museum needed urgent help to upgrade its infrastructure. The paleontology collection held several key specimens of pterosaurs, Kellner’s specialty; dinosaurs; and other prehistoric animals of South America.

“It makes me inordinately sad to think of those millions of specimens and exhibits, the product of 200 years of collection and the life’s work of so many hundreds of scientists and explorers, just going up in flame and turning to dust. It makes me want to cry,” says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte at The University of Edinburgh, who has worked with the Brazilian museum’s fossil collections.

Physicist Luiz Davidovich of UFRJ, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, says the disaster was something “to be mourned officially with flags at half mast,” so that everybody would know that “the National Museum is dead.” The fire is another blow on top of recent drastic budget cuts, he adds. “It’s another sad chapter in the dismantling of Brazilian science—one that affects not only the future of the country, but also its memory.”