One of the world’s most expansive anthropology and natural history collections was almost completely destroyed by a raging inferno this past Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Museu Nacional (National Museum) housed nearly 20 million artifacts; including mummified remains, indigenous art and artifacts, frescoes from Pompeii, fossil records, dinosaur bones, and a scientific library.
Brazil National Museum Collections
The museum’s most popular exhibit, the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman simply known as “Luzia,” is one of the millions of irreplaceable artifacts lost in the fire. Using her skull, experts created a realistic sculpture of the woman. It too was destroyed.
Gone are the 5 million butterflies and other arthropods that were crushed by the weight and debris of the collapsing building and then scorched by the heat and flames. The collection represented the largest of its kind in Latin America.
Likely lost in the blaze are priceless archeological artifacts, such as frescoes from Pompeii, a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus, a 3,500-year-old Chilean mummy, hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, nearly 2,000 South American precolonial artifacts, and ceramics and art from indigenous Brazilian cultures. Also destroyed were audio recordings of indigenous languages, many of which are no longer spoken.
The fire-gutted building once housed a magnificent assortment of fossils and dinosaur skeletons, with one such specimen, a Santanaraptor, showcasing its stunningly well preserved soft tissues, right down to its individual muscle fibers in its leg.
Not all seems to be lost. Having once screamed downward through the scorching heat of the atmosphere, the Bendegó meteorite, weighing in at a mere 11,600-pounds, seems to have survived the fire. Discovered in Bahía state in 1784, the rock was so difficult to transport, that it took nearly a century to get it to the museum for study, where it has since been displayed as one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.
How Did This Happen?
The short answer: willful neglect.
Although the museum was the largest, most influential natural history museum in Latin America, it had never been adequately renovated in its 200-year existence. In fact, it was common knowledge that the museum suffered from serious infrastructure problems like leaks and termite infestations. Due to the aforementioned termite problem, the museum was recently compelled to crowdfund money to repair the termite damage.
In addition to those issues, the building also suffered from a lack of…wait for it…no working sprinkler system! The lack of funding needed for even the most essential repairs is attributed to the severe cuts in government funding over the years. “For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, has said.
So how much money are we talking about? Through government funding, the museum typically expects to receive $128,000 annually for its operations. The museum has only seen a fraction of that over the course of the past five years. In fact, National Geographic reports that in 2018, the museum received a grand total of $13,000, prompting it to temporarily shutter its doors as a result!
While this in undoubtedly a tragic loss of irreplaceable and invaluable history, it should serve as a wakeup call to other museums, libraries, archives, and private collectors across the globe. Why? Because it was completely preventable. Bottom line, if you can’t afford to properly care for historical and culturally significant artifacts, there’s only one responsible course of action for you to take: let another well-resourced institution or individual care for them.