Over the past five years, the museum faced severe cuts and didn’t even receive its full allotted funds from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It was recently forced to crowdfund money to repair the termite-damaged base of one of its grandest mounted dinosaurs. “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.
“This was an announced tragedy,” added Ana Lucia Araujo, a Brazilian-born historian at Howard University, on Twitter. “Other tragedies like this can happen any time in numerous museums, libraries, and archives in Brazil.”
The losses are “incalculable to Brazil,” said Michel Temer, the country’s president, on Twitter. “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost.”
Marina Silva, a candidate in Brazil’s upcoming elections, described the fire as “a lobotomy in Brazilian memory.”
The museum’s herbarium, its main library, and some of its vertebrates were housed in a different building that was untouched by the fire. But together, these reportedly account for just 10 percent of the museum’s collection. For comparison, the remaining 90 percent includes twice as many specimens as the entire British Museum. Museum staff carried out whatever they could by hand, including parts of the mollusk collection. Time will tell what else survived, and some losses are already clear: The floor beneath the entomology collection collapsed, for example, and the 5 million butterflies and other arthropods within were likely lost.
The museum’s archeological collection had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; entire tongues went up in flames. It carried about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to precolonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.
Older still was the museum’s rich trove of fossils, from crocodile relatives like Pepesuchus to one of the oldest relatives of today’s scorpions. It harbored some of the oldest human remains in the Americas: the 11,500-year-old skull and pelvis of a woman who was unearthed in 1975 and nicknamed Luzia. “The skull is very fragile,” the artist Maurilio Oliveira told The New York Times. “The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it.”
One might think that fossils, being rock, would be immune to fire. But as Mariana Di Giacomo, a paleontologist from the University of Delaware, described in a Twitter thread, fires can reach temperatures that are high enough to crack stone. It destroys buildings, causing walls and ceilings to fall on fragile specimens. It burns the labels attached to fossils and the numbers that are painted onto them, turning something that’s part of the scientific record into uninformative rock. “Without data, we only have old bones/shells/logs,” wrote Di Giacomo. Even the water that’s used to quench the flames can make things worse, causing fossils to swell and crack, dissolving adhesives, ruining labels even further, and stimulating the growth of mold.