Brazil’s National Museum fire in context

Brazil's oldest museum was reduced to ashes on Sunday, in a fire that destroyed most of the 20 million artefacts it housed. What is the significance of the fire and what is the history of the museum?

Brazil's oldest museum was gutted by a fire that destroyed most of the 20 million artefacts it housed. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

When was the National Museum built?

Located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s National Museum was created 200 years ago in 1818 by Dom João VI, the king of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. The then-Prince Regent and the Portuguese royal family had moved to Brazil in 1808 to escape the invasion of Napoléon Bonaparte.

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The building that housed the museum was the Palace of São Cristóvão. Built in the early 19th century, it became the residence of Dom João VI, and later of his son Dom Pedro I, who in 1822 was crowned the first emperor of independent Brazil. Following independence, the museum was renamed the Royal and National Museum. The palace continued to be the residence of Dom Pedro II and the imperial family throughout the 19th century.

The fire is thought to have destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the 20 million items housed in Brazil’s National Museum. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
The fire is thought to have destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the 20 million items housed in Brazil’s National Museum. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

How many artefacts were destroyed by the fire?

Sunday’s fire is thought to have destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the 20 million items housed in Brazil’s National Museum.

What artefacts did the museum contain?

The National Museum’s collections featured rare artefacts from around the world. Its Egyptian collection, composed of 700 artefacts, became the largest in Latin America. The museum also housed the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman known as ‘Luzia’ – the oldest discovered in Latin America.

First built in 1576, the Globe theatre burnt to the ground in 1613. During a performance of the play now known as 'Henry VIII', a set of stage cannons were fired and a piece of flaming material from one of the cannons landed on the theatre’s thatched roof, causing the fire. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The museum featured a rich collection of Brazilian indigenous artefacts. Transformed into a research institution, the museum later acquired important collections of geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, and biological anthropology. In 1946 the institution was incorporated to the University of Brazil (renamed Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 1965). The museum became the site of the university’s graduate programme in anthropology that trained scholars from around the world.

The museum also housed items belonging to Brazil’s royal family, left behind in 1889 when a Republican military coup put an end to monarchy in the country exiled the family to France. The rich royal collection included the sarcophagus of Sha-Amun-em-su (mummified around 2,708 years ago) that was brought by emperor Dom Pedro II to Brazil from his third trip to Egypt in 1876.

The museum featured a rich collection of Brazilian indigenous artefacts. (Photo by Erwan LE BOURDONNEC / AFP/ Getty Images)
The museum featured a rich collection of Brazilian indigenous artefacts. (Photo by Erwan LE BOURDONNEC / AFP/ Getty Images)

What caused the fire?

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the National Museum was said to be in a dilapidated state, greatly in need of updates. Its staff had publicly urged the adaptation of the museum’s buildings to secure and protect its collections. Recently, the museum is understood to have faced problems with its gutters and water infiltration, and a termite infestation: unlike its counterparts in Europe and North America, the museum had no sprinkler system.

A view of Rio de Janeiro's National Museum, two days after a massive fire ripped through the building. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, two days after a massive fire ripped through the building. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past five years the university’s funding has greatly decreased, which in turn has reduced the museum’s budget. Sadly, this situation is not unique to the National Museum; several Brazilian public archives, libraries and museums that house priceless world history collections remain in a great state of decay. A few years ago, the Bahia State Archive in Salvador (Bahia) had to cut its electricity because its leaking roof posed a fire hazard. The Paulista Museum (in the city and the state of São Paulo), which also depends on public funding and is operated by the University of São Paulo, has been closed for five years and is still waiting for renovations.

Brazil’s relationship with its national heritage is complicated and access to education remains a thorny issue in the country. Ordinary citizens rarely visit museums and elected representatives often fail to recognise the importance of preserving national heritage.

A fire burns through the National Museum of Brazil on 2 September 2, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
A fire burns through the National Museum of Brazil on 2 September 2, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Other museum fires through history

Brazil’s National Museum is one of many museums, libraries and archives destroyed over the centuries by fire. On 25 August 1914, after invading Belgium, German troops burned 300,000 books and manuscripts held by the Library of the University of Louvain.

Meanwhile, in September 1923 an earthquake damaged a significant part of the Imperial University Library in Tokyo.

Portico entrance of Oxford's famous Ashmolean Museum. (Dreamstime)

In 1966, a fire destroyed an important part of the collections of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York.

In June 2018, a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Armory that housed the Aberdeen Museum of History – hundreds of priceless artifacts were lost.

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Ana Lucia Araujo is a social and cultural historian, author and professor of history at Howard University in Washington, DC. analuciaaraujo.org