Grief and Anger Mingle After Devastating Brazil Museum Fire

Read the full story in National Geographic.

For more than 200 years, Brazil’s National Museum—or Museu Nacional—stood as the country’s oldest and most important safeguard for its heritage. Now, one of Latin America’s largest natural history museums is a burnt-out husk of its former self. A massive fire broke out at the museum late September 2, torching its exhibits and some 90 percent of the museum’s 20 million artifacts. There were no reported fatalities.

As firefighters worked to put out the blaze, some museum staffers and volunteers pulled what they could from the building, including part of the museum’s mollusk collection. The museum’s Bendegó meteorite, the largest ever found in Brazil, is one of the few objects that survived direct contact with the flames. Scientists also hold out hope that some of the objects in the archaeology and paleontology collections may have been stored in metal containers that shielded them.

In an September 5 email, Museu Nacional curator Débora Pires wrote that the entomology and arachnology collections were completely destroyed, as was most of the mollusk collection. However, technicians had braved the fire to save 80 percent of the mollusk holotypes—the specimens that formally serve as the global references for a given species. The museum’s vertebrate specimens, herbarium, and library were housed separately and survived the fire. And recently, researchers had 3-D scanned some of the museum’s Egyptian artifacts, preserving at least their forms for posterity.

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