With the hollowed-out shell of their old building standing in ruins nearby, and its history-rich contents in ashes, staff and scientists of Brazil’s National Museum met Wednesday morning for the first time since Sunday’s fire to begin to piece together a future—one suddenly bereft of a vast assortment of items from Brazil’s natural and cultural heritage, which explorers and researchers had collected and preserved over the museum’s 200-year history.
No one died or was injured in the fire—astonishingly, given staffers’ last-minute efforts to salvage specimens and equipment as parts of the building’s interior tumbled down around them. But one museum official estimated up to 18 million of the institution’s original 20 million specimens might have been destroyed in the raging blaze, which began soon after the building closed Sunday evening. Among the unique items missing and presumed lost were the only recordings of languages of tribes that have vanished, and the only specimens of plants and animals that have gone extinct, from places that in some cases no longer exist.
Museum Director Alexander Kellner told Scientific American that a meeting with members of Brazil’s congress, cabinet and Pres. Michel Temer had secured an immediate guarantee of $2.4 million to stabilize the museum’s gutted shell, located in a park on the north side of Rio de Janeiro, “and to recover what can be recovered.” This will inevitably be a slow process. Some paleontology specimens, for instance, may have survived within heavy-duty storage containers called compactors. But those compactors are now singed and covered with rubble—which itself needs to be picked through for fallen remnants of other collections from the upper floors. Kellner said an additional $1.2 million is under discussion to “make the building habitable.” Beyond that, “we are discussing the possibility for next year” of an additional $19.2 million to rebuild the structure of the museum, originally a palace dating from the early 19th century.
But those discussions are taking place as Brazil’s presidential election campaign is about to enter its final month, when promises—and recriminations—come more easily to politicians. On Twitter, Temer called the loss to Brazilian history and culture “irreparable” and a “sad day for all Brazilians.” Critics, however, immediately noted Temer’s right-wing government had drastically cut federal funding for science and education as part of an austerity program. Others countered that he had only deepened cuts begun by his left-wing predecessors. Either way, the budget for the National Museum has plummeted to less than a fifth of what it was just five years ago, and staff have sometimes resorted to crowdfunding to keep exhibits open to the public.
In a television interview, as the building still smoldered behind him, Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, noted the government’s lavish expenditures on stadiums to host the World Cup in 2014. “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. A bitterly repeated rumor, according to entomologist Steve Lingafelter, who is now retired from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and had deposited specimens in the Brazil museum, was “that the cleaning budget for the fleet of cars for high-government officials in Brazil was actually more than the security and maintenance for the [National Museum].”
Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the fire, although government officials said faulty electrical wiring may be to blame. It is also common in Brazil for people to release fire-propelled paper balloons as a rite of celebration, and one of them might have landed on the building’s roof. The government’s development bank had recently committed to spend about $5 million on a renovation program for the museum, including fire-suppression—but no such system had been installed when the blaze broke out. (Kellner said those funds would remain available for the rebuilding program.)
Firefighters called to the scene Sunday night struggled to slow the fire’s spread because nearby hydrants were dry. They eventually obtained water from a lake in the park. Meanwhile, museum staff broke through doors and entered collections in areas the fire had not yet reached, rescuing specimens and equipment. Museum ichthyologist Paulo Andreas Buckup went into the burning main building with a technician who knew the location of the malacology department’s most important specimens—that is, mollusks—which they began to carry out by the drawerful. “Others were doing the same thing in the crustacean laboratory,” Buckup says. “We could feel the smoke, and what little light we had was from the fire raging just outside.” But that effort quickly ended because of debris dropping down from the building’s pine interior, which Buckup describes as “tinder.”
The museum’s botany and vertebrate biology departments, its classrooms and some invertebrate collections survived in separate, modernized buildings. Even within the main building many mineralogy and paleontology specimens may have withstood the flames. But the anthropology collection and most of entomology are almost certainly lost, according to Buckup, and the vast library of anthropology and natural history may now survive only in digitized form. Luzia Woman, an 11,500-year-old partial skeleton that is thought to be among the oldest human remains found in South America, is probably also lost.
On Facebook and Twitter, researchers worldwide also began to add up the loss to science. Lingafelter described the Brazil museum’s collection of cerambycid (or long-horned) beetles as “among the best in the world.” He wrote that the collection included more than 1,000 holotypes—the specimens by which a species is forever defined—“and hundreds of thousands of specimens. I know the curators there well and my heart is broken for them.”
Protesters—some of them in tears—gathered on Monday outside the museum ruins, and many were treating the loss as a symbol of government corruption and economic policies critics say have lately devastated Brazilian cultural and educational institutions, its health care system and its infrastructure. “They’re burning our history and they’re burning our dreams,” a high school teacher told The New York Times.
For the global natural history museum community, the loss was also emblematic of the chronic underfunding that has imperiled their work in recent decades. An extensive collection of Brazilian specimens vanished when a fire ravaged Portugal’s Museum of Natural History and Science in 1978—and subsequent fires had damaged other Brazilian museum collections in 2010 and 2015. The loss of Brazil’s National Museum also echoes the 2016 destruction by fire of the entire collection of the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, India’s largest assemblage of its plant and animal heritage. Even in the absence of such catastrophic losses, though, the lack of staff and of such basic equipment as climate and humidity control systems also threaten collections almost everywhere—a situation that led the journal Nature to worry in a 2015 article that natural history collections are becoming “the endangered dead.”
“Times like these are a sobering reminder that natural history matters,” the directors of 12 of the world’s largest natural history museums declared in a joint response issued after Sunday’s fire. “Natural history museums document, protect and celebrate the natural world,” the directors said. “Our collections are an invaluable library of moments of life on Earth—each artifact and specimen is a crucial record of how the world became what it is today and a clue into how we can protect it in the future.” The letter also committed the directors’ respective museums to rebuilding the Brazilian collection. Kirk Johnson, director of the NMNH, said curators there are also working “on a larger Smithsonian effort as well.”
In Rio de Janeiro museum staffers called for residents of the neighborhood to bring “fragments of documents, books” and other objects found in the aftermath of the fire to a collecting point in the facility’s garden. Students from UNIRIO, a museum studies program in Brazil, also put out a call for museum visitors to send photos of specimens, adding, “With any luck, some photos will have legible labels, which may help recover at least some data.” (E-mail photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)
“At this point,” Buckup says, “we have enough resources to take care of the immediate needs.” This means finding room for colleagues—90 scientists, 150 technicians and 500 students—to work in the portions of the museum that have survived. “What we mostly need is a strong commitment from the Brazil government, or even private enterprise, to provide the means for scientists to be restored to minimal working conditions,” Buckup adds. “We have lost lots of history. What we cannot afford to lose is the future of science in this institution.”