The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Notre Dame fire could have been far worse. Consider what happened to Brazil’s national museum.

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, flames engulf the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. (Leo Correa/AP)

Last September, Marcus Guidoti watched in horror as video emerged of Brazil’s National Museum engulfed in flames. As the fire spread, the Brazilian entomologist mapped what collections inside might be destroyed, hoping the rare lace bugs he was studying would be spared.

They weren’t.

For Guidoti, watching flames consume much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday was like “reliving the same thing all over again.”

Much like the disastrous fire in Brazil, the blaze at France’s most iconic Catholic cathedral evoked in him an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

“I couldn’t help but think ‘Okay, this is going to be really bad, it’s going to be exactly like the museum,'" Guidoti said of Monday’s fire in Paris. It was painful “just watching how fragile we are.”

Fortunately, the fire at Notre Dame was eventually contained. And while there was extensive damage to the cathedral’s roof and interior, much of the precious artwork, initially feared lost, was saved — in part because many pieces had already been removed for planned renovations.

Before and after: Iconic Notre Dame Cathedral scorched by blaze

The damage done to the 200-year-old museum in Brazil last year is a reminder of just how much worse the blaze in Paris could have been. The fire in Rio de Janeiro largely gutted the museum’s historic building, which was home to artifacts as precious and rare as dinosaur fossils and “Luzia,” the region’s oldest known human remains. Most of the 20 million artifacts housed inside the museum are believed to have been lost.

In France, a human chain of emergency workers helped lessen the extent of the damage to Notre Dame. As The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, items rescued during the blaze include a crown of thorns that many Catholics believe Jesus once wore. But not everything was salvaged. The cathedral’s distinctive 19th-century spire dramatically collapsed during the height of the blaze on Monday. And much of the roof’s centuries-old wood was also destroyed.

Jean-Francois Bédard, an associate professor of architecture at Syracuse University, said that while the cathedral itself is iconic, “ultimately, these medieval buildings were built for the relics.”

“Since they’re saved, as part of the Catholic patrimony, this is sort of a relief,” he said.

Wealthy French families have already pledged to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild the cathedral — although some critics called on the French government to take care of rebuilding costs. An investigation into what caused the fire is still ongoing, but there are suspicions that renovations intended to better preserve the building ultimately led to the damage.

But in Brazil, many saw the government’s budget cuts and negligence toward museum renovations as the reason for the fire that destroyed so much of the building and its collection. In the days after the blaze, clashes broke out between police and protesters calling on the government to take responsibility for the museum’s downfall.

This week, French leaders were quick to mobilize emergency services to help salvage what they could from the blaze. President Emmanuel Macron called Notre Dame “the epicenter of our lives.”

Macron vows to rebuild Notre Dame within five years, a breakneck pace for a monumental project

Brazilian leaders also acknowledged the extent of their losses at the time. Marina Silva, a former environment minister and then-presidential candidate, compared the fire to “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” The president at the time, Michel Temer, called the destruction of the museum “incalculable to Brazil.” But many Brazilians also felt a slow response time and lack of resources helped contribute to the museum’s destruction.

The significance of these structures contributes to the feeling of helplessness people like Guidoti experienced as they, now on two occasions, watched history burn to the ground.

“Those are important buildings and important things for our civilizations, and we just can’t do anything to save it,” he said.

Emily Tamkin contributed to this report.

Read more

Notre Dame fire: Crews assess the damage and an investigation begins

The fall of Notre Dame is a body blow to Paris and all it represents

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