'Politicians are responsible': Fury after Brazil's past turns to ashes
Advertisement

'Politicians are responsible': Fury after Brazil's past turns to ashes

A five-tonne meteorite. A Portinari painting. The 11,500-year-old skull of Luzia, the oldest human found in the Americas. A historical account of William Bligh’s travels to and from Australia and his discovery of the Bounty Islands in New Zealand.

Four items. Three now likely ash.

A five-tonne meteorite remains inside the entrance of the National Museum on Monday, following a fire that gutted the 200-year-old institution.

A five-tonne meteorite remains inside the entrance of the National Museum on Monday, following a fire that gutted the 200-year-old institution. Credit:AP

With its insides still smouldering, its shell showing cracks, and its staff in tears, the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, a 10,000-square metre, three-storey palace that was once the official residence of the King of Portugal and Brazil’s two emperors – the last, Dom Pedro II, was born here – has begun to take stock.

Luzia's 11,500-year-old skull was found along with her thigh and hip bones 1975. She is believed to have died aged 25. 

Luzia's 11,500-year-old skull was found along with her thigh and hip bones 1975. She is believed to have died aged 25. Credit:National Museum UFRJ

Advertisement

It was said to contain 20 million items and artefacts as diverse as the sciences it sought to preserve: Egyptian mummies, whale bones, the first dinosaur found in Brazil, a 100-year-old collection of indigenous ceremonial robes, butterflies as colourful as the rainbow, entire libraries gathered by imperial researchers, royal furniture dating back to the Portuguese monarchy.

It was here that Brazil’s declaration of independence was signed in 1822, followed two years later by the first constitution and the first session of the budding new republic’s congress.

The museum, the oldest in the country, turned 200 in June. A date deserving of celebration, of inspiring preservation. Instead it became a victim of Brazil’s crumbling economy and public assets mismanagement.

National Geographic called it the "largest and most renowned museum in Latin America, amassing a collection of scientifically and culturally invaluable artefacts".

A day after flames gutted the building, the country mourned those irreplaceable treasures and pointed fingers over who was to blame.

One official told a Brazilian news outlet that as much as 90 per cent may have been destroyed. Saved, perhaps, only those parts of the collection stored at other sites.

For many the state of the museum quickly became a metaphor for what they see as the gutting of Brazilian culture and life during years of corruption, economic collapse and poor governance.

"It's a crime that the museum was allowed to get to this shape," said Laura Albuquerque, a 29-year-old dance teacher who was in a crowd protesting outside the gates. "What happened isn't just regrettable, it's devastating and politicians are responsible for it."

Police guard the museum on Monday.

Police guard the museum on Monday.Credit:AP

The cause of the fire that broke out on Sunday night after the museum had closed for visitors was not known. Federal police will investigate since the museum was part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. But protesters, commentators and museum directors themselves said years of government neglect had left it so underfunded that its staff had turn to crowdfunding sites to re-open exhibitions.

Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum's deputy director, criticised authorities for starving it of vital funding while spending lavishly on stadiums to host the World Cup in 2014.

Loading

"The money spent on each one of those stadiums – a quarter of that would have been enough to make this museum safe and resplendent," he said in an interview in front of the still-smouldering ruins aired on Brazilian television.

Roberto Leher, the university's rector, said it was well known that the building was vulnerable to fire and in need of extensive repairs. It had no fire-proof doors and possibly no sprinklers.

Duarte said he was in the habit of unplugging everything in his office at night because of the risk.

Authorities were concerned that internal walls and the roof could collapse further, so officials had to wait to conduct a full accounting of losses.

Duarte said that anything held in the main building had probably been destroyed.

The collection also contained a painting by the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari and extensive paleontological, anthropological and biological specimens including the long-necked Maxakalisaurus and Latin America's oldest collection of Egyptian mummies and artefacts, among it a cat mummy and a female mummy whose arms and fingers were, unusually, wrapped individually.

Gutted: only the walls and some parts of the roof of the National Museum appeared to have survived. The floors can no longer be seen.

Gutted: only the walls and some parts of the roof of the National Museum appeared to have survived. The floors can no longer be seen.Credit:AP

"It's a moment of intense pain," Maurilio Oliveira, who has worked as a paleoartist at the museum for 19 years, said.

"We can only hope to recover our history from the ashes. Now, we cry and get to work."

The Bendego meteorite, the largest ever discovered in Brazil – one of the few objects that officials could confirm had survived. Photos show it still standing on its pedestal, the scene around it reminiscent of war.

Luzia's reconstructed head was made in Britain.

Luzia's reconstructed head was made in Britain.Credit:National Museum UFRJ

Oliveira said museum officials were all but resigned to the loss of the Luzia remains – perhaps the museum's most iconic piece.

"We are strongly hoping that she survived, but it's very difficult," he said. "The skull is very fragile. The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it."

Brazil has struggled to emerge from a two-year recession and seen its political and corporate elite jailed in Latin America's largest corruption investigation.

The country has been riven with deep political divisions following the impeachment and removal of former president Dilma Rousseff and last week's electoral court decision to bar jailed former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva from running again in October.

The protesters gathered outside the museum gates tried several times to push into the site, demanding to see the damage and calling on the government to rebuild. Police held the crowd back with pepper spray, tear gas and batons.

Students and National Museum employees protest outside the institution after it was gutted by fire.

Students and National Museum employees protest outside the institution after it was gutted by fire.Credit:AP

"This fire is what Brazilian politicians are doing to the people," said Rosana Hollanda, a 35-year-old high school history teacher, who was crying. "They're burning our history, and they're burning our dreams."

Signs of disrepair were evident. The fencing was dilapidated, stonework was cracked and lawns appeared untended.

The museum's budget had fallen from about 1 million reals in 2013 ($338,0000) to about 98,000 reals to date this year, according to Marcio Martins, a spokesman for the museum. This year was on track to include an increase.

The institution had recently secured approval for nearly 5 million reals for a planned renovation, including an upgrade of the fire-prevention system, officials said, but the "ran out of time".

On Tuesday, the country's biggest media group, Globo, said an architect, whose name was not made public, reported a high fire risk to the Attorney-General's office on July 27. In his letter, he urged an inspection, especially of the building's third level.  He said it was urgent "society be made aware of the risks to its heritage," G1 reported.

Firefighters work the fire  on Sunday.

Firefighters work the fire on Sunday. Credit:AP

"Look at the irony. The money is now there, but we ran out of time," museum director Alexander Kellner told reporters at the scene.

President Michel Temer announced on Monday that private and public banks, as well as mining giant Vale and state-run oil company Petrobras, have agreed to help rebuild the museum and reconstitute its collections. French President Emmanuel Macron offered in a tweet to send experts to help rebuild the museum.

Brazil is in the midst of a national election campaign and some candidates on the left seized on the fire as an example of the disastrous effects of budget cuts implemented by Temer's government. The budget data showed that cuts to the museum's budget began under the previous left-wing government.

Supporters of Brazil's former monarchy, right, argue with people outside the ruins of National Museum in Rio.

Supporters of Brazil's former monarchy, right, argue with people outside the ruins of National Museum in Rio.Credit:AP

Fire department spokesman Roberto Robadey said firefighters got off to a slow start because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum did not work. Instead, water had to be pumped from a nearby lake.

There were fire extinguishers in the museum, but it was not clear if there were sprinklers, which are problematic for museums because water can damage objects, Kellner said. Serejo said that smoke detectors were not working.

Marcus Guidoti, a doctoral candidate in zoology who had visited the museum to study insect specimens, said the neglect dates back years.

"Let this free us from the ignorance that fails to appreciate culture, science and our national identity," he wrote on Twitter.

Local media reported more Brazilians visited the Louvre in Paris last year than their country's National Museum.

Natan Campos, 37, a street sweeper who works at the park that surrounds the museum, said such calamities as this fire were the byproduct of the systemic neglect of cultural institutions in Brazil.

"The corruption that affects our health, our education, makes me sick," he said. "But the feeling I have about the museum is sadness. We are forgetting our history. This amplifies our ignorance."

With AP, agencies