MOURNING THE BRAZILIAN MUSEUM FIRE

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The museum building being gutted by fire

Okechukwu Uwaezuoke with agency reports

Not just Brazil grieved. The entire culture world too. According to news reports, the fire had started last Sunday’s evening at about 7.30pm. By that time, the Museu Nacional (National Museum) in Rio de Janeiro, which was housed in a 19th Century former royal palace, had closed for the day.

The fire quickly engulfed much of the building, which is located near the Maracanã stadium and razed hundreds of rooms along with some 20 million artefacts, which according to museum officials accounted for almost 90% of the collection. By Monday morning, most of the museum have been reduced to a smouldering ruin.

According to the UK newspaper The Guardian, the Brazilian Culture Minister Sergio Leitao, who spoke to the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, thought that the most likely causes of the inferno were an electrical fault or a home-made paper hot-air balloon landing on the roof. This was even as an investigation had been launched.
BBC reported that by the next day, Monday, fire crews still managed to rescue an artefact or a painting while sifting through the charred wreckage.

Among the objects destroyed by the fire were fossils, the reconstructed skeleton of a dinosaur, Roman frescoes and pre-Columbian Brazilian objects. It was still unclear if the museum was insured.

BBC also reported the Rio de Janeiro’s fire chief, Roberto Robadey, as saying nearby hydrants were dry when emergency services arrived, adding that crews had to get water from a nearby lake and from tanker trucks.
While Brazilian President Michel Temer was speaking of the government seeking funding from companies and banks to help rebuild the museum, the South American country’s Education Minister Rossieli Soares disclosed international help was also being sought and talks with the UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, were under way. Soares had told reporters outside the ruined building that the federal government had set aside an initial 15million reais ($3.6million) to rebuild the structure and restore its collection.

Now, it was time for the blame game. The museum’s staff have alleged funding cuts, an allegation the demonstrators who surrounded the museum’s perimeter in a symbolic “embrace” on Monday also re-echoed. BBC reported a deputy director of the museum Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte as expressing “immense anger”, and accusing Brazilian authorities of a “lack of attention”. “We fought years ago, in different governments, to obtain resources to adequately preserve everything that was destroyed today,” he was quoted as saying.

On the alleged lack of a sprinkler system, Duarte was reported as telling Brazil’s Globo TV that a $5.3 million (£4.1 million) modernisation plan agreed in June would have included modern fire prevention equipment, but only after October’s elections.

BBC also reported the rector of the Rio de Janeiro federal university, which administers the museum, Roberto Leher as saying the community was “very mobilised, and very indignant”.”We all knew the building was vulnerable,” he had added.

Speaking on neglect, Brazil’s iconic novelist Paulo Coelho in an article published in The Guardian of the UK lamented: “Brazilians travel around the world in their millions, visiting fantastic museums like the Tate in London, the Metropolitan in New York, and the Louvre in Paris, which had more than 8 million visitors last year. Yet it is not overstating things to say that Rio – with its panoramic views of mountains, forests and the sea – is the most beautiful city in the world.”

“So why did the National Museum – the most fantastic museum in South America with its 2m artefacts, its Egyptian collection and the most ancient fossils in Brazilian history – receive only 154,000 visitors a year?” he wondered, adding: “We blame the government for neglecting our history. But we, the Brazilian people, neglect it too. Brazil is a fantastic country, a beautiful country, but it is blighted by the lack of education. Poor people in Brazil do not go to school, let alone to museums. Rich people go to museums – but in London, New York or Paris, not in Rio or São Paulo.”

This destroyed building, he lamented, not only housed the country’s history, it was also part of it since it was the official residence of King João VI, who had fled to South America after Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal. It was from this building, known as Saint Christopher’s Palace, that he operated when he turned Rio de Janeiro into the seat of power for the government of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve.

“But now, instead of celebrating the 200th birthday of this magnificent institution, Brazil is in tears because it has burned down,” Coelho said. “If this historic landmark symbolised the beginning of the nation, the fire symbolises a country where a lack of culture and education is the greatest problem.”

Among the museum’s largest and natural history collections lost in the fire was the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman known as “Luzia”, which APF news agency had quoted the museum director Paulo Knauss as calling “a priceless loss for everyone interested in civilisation”.

“Luzia”, a skeleton traced to the upper paleolithic period, was said to have been found in a cave in Brazil in 1975 by the French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire. Estimated to be about 11,500 years old, she was believed to be the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas. Controversies still swirled around her origins as some anthropologists think the skull point to a south-east Asian origin. In 2010, the face of the skeleton, which would have been less than five feet tall, was reconstructed by scientists.

Besides “Luzia”, there were mummified remains of a woman and two children said to have been donated to Emperor Dom Pedro II, the second and last monarch of the Empire of Brazil, there were also mummified or shrunken heads produced in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin by the Shuar people, in heavily ritualised processes, which saw the skull removed while leaving the skin and hair intact. Then, there were 700 items from Egypt, which included the unopened wooden painted coffin of Sha-Amun-em-su, which was said to be from Thebes and was dated to around 750BC. X-rays of the coffin revealed that in addition to the body, there are amulets still intact inside the casket.

There were yet such Egyptian relics as the 3,000-year-old coffin of the priest Hori and a mummified cat.
As for the museum’s indigenous art and artefacts collection, established in 1818, it contained an invaluable assortment of art and objects from Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

Also believed to have been lost in the fire were the 5,260kg Bendegó meteorite, which was discovered in 1784 in Monte Santo, Bahia by a boy; frescoes that were believed to have survived the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption; fossil records from the Sertão region of Brazil and a scientific library said to have contained nearly half a million volumes, including 2,400 which have been described as rare works.

Brazil, and indeed the international culture community, licked its wounds, even as the full extent of the damage caused by the fire is yet to be ascertained. The tragedy, which the country’s culture minister Sérgio Sá Leitão said “could have been avoided”, beams the spotlight on not just the poor maintenance of museums in Brazil, but also in many developing countries like Nigeria.