Democracy Dies in Darkness

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‘A lobotomy of the Brazilian memory’: Devastating fire destroys Rio’s National Museum

September 3, 2018 at 3:42 PM

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A massive fire hit the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, devastating its collection of more than 20 million items. (Reuters)

Before the concept of countries existed, Luzia walked the broad savanna of what is now south-central Brazil. Her remains were buried in the Vermelha Cave about 11,500 years ago until they were found and studied in the 20th century. Researchers later said her existence challenged the basic understanding of how humans migrated, and when.

Luzia's remains are among nearly 20 million items feared incinerated after a blaze roared through Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum on Sunday, in an inferno that Brazilian officials and scientists are describing as an unbearable erasure of human history potentially caused by years of neglect.

The fire was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory,” said Marina Silva, a former environment minister and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, according to the Guardian. Video of the blaze showed twin columns of towering fire reaching against black sky.

President Michel Temer said the loss was “incalculable to Brazil” and has directed the museum to be rebuilt using public and private funds, he said Monday. The museum is the biggest natural history museum in Latin America.

Police clad in riot gear held back an angry, massive crowd calling for Temer's resignation at the smoldering museum. BBC reporter Katy Wilson said “thousands” at the scene blamed the fire on years of austerity measures for lack of funding and modernization efforts at museum.

Brazil has struggled to emerge from a 2014 recession and the political fallout that followed, and the museum blaze threatens to become a symbol for angry Brazilians frustrated by high unemployment and glacial economic growth.

Students and National Museum employees protest on Sept. 3, 2018, outside the institution after it was gutted by an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

The museum, which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year, was founded a few years before the country itself.

It housed priceless items of global and regional history, stretching from a several-ton meteorite to dinosaur bones and an Egyptian sarcophagus. Also feared lost are items kept by Dom Pedro I, who declared Brazil independent from Portugal in 1822.

The archives also hosted text and sound material documenting indigenous languages in Brazil. Anthropologists there have raced to preserve native languages in decline, many of which have disappeared forever.

“It is an unbearable catastrophe. It is 200 years of this country’s heritage. It is 200 years of memory. It is 200 years of science. It is 200 years of culture, of education,” Luiz Duarte, a vice director of the museum, told TV Globo.

It was not clear how the fire started. Duarte blamed the government for poor funding and outdated protection. A fire prevention system was set to be installed but came too late, he said.

“For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said, the Guardian reported. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”

An official visit in 2004 found dangerous wiring and poor safety standards that risked the chance of a catastrophic fire, Agência Brasil reported then.

Luzia's skeleton shook the foundation of what scientists understood about migration to the Americas, providing an earlier timeline of when the region was discovered and settled, the New York Times reported. In 1999, scientists said Luzia was the oldest skeleton ever found in the Western Hemisphere and a key to understanding human history.

An aerial view of the National Museum of Brazil after the fire. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Firefighters speculated that millions of pages of research material and books may have fueled the blaze. There were no reports of injuries, the Guardian reported.

Photos from the scene early Monday showed workers carefully laying out recovered artifacts. But it is too early to tell what has been recovered and what has been lost.

Museums worldwide offered condolences following the destruction, as if the loss were a death in the family.

"We grieve today with our colleagues in Brazil. Our hearts and thoughts are with you,” the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History said on Twitter.

The Louvre in Paris said on Twitter that it was met with “profound sadness” at the news. In Mexico City, the National Anthropology Museum called the fire a “tragic event” and said the museum's collection is “a legacy for all of humanity.”

London's British Library said the incident is “a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our shared global heritage."

Anthropologist Mércio Gomes said the fire was as bad as or worse than the one that swept through the royal library in Alexandria, Egypt, in 48 B.C. — a symbol of great and terrible loss of human knowledge.

“We Brazilians only have 500 years of history. Our National Museum was 200 years old, but that’s what we had, and what is lost forever,” he wrote on Facebook.

Gomes, the former president of Brazil’s indigenous agency, also decried the loss of native artifacts and wonders like Luzia. The human toll to get them to the museum over two centuries was brutal and lasting, he wrote.

"Here they arrived in donkey loins, on the back of slaves, on boats and wagons,” he wrote.

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Alex Horton is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. He previously covered the military and national security for Stars and Stripes, and served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.

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