Science & Technology

Brazil's National Museum Went Up in Flames This Weekend. Here's What's Left

If you were online this past weekend, you probably saw at least one headline about the destruction of the National Museum of Brazil. It recalls the (semi-apocryphal) fire at the Library of Alexandria — countless cultural treasures burned to ash in a matter of hours. This is a huge loss for humanity, even if you don't live anywhere near Brazil. Here's what was lost, and what managed to survive.

Related Video: A Massive Fire Destroys Brazil's 200-Year-Old National Museum

Gone for Good

It's difficult to overstate the magnitude of the loss. Founded in 1818 by King João VI of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, the National Museum of Brazil was one of the oldest museums in the Americas. It held more than 20 million artifacts and ran the gamut of intellectual disciplines from archaeology to zoology. The irreplaceable treasures of two continents could be found here, as well as thousands of pieces from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. But according to the most recent estimates, as much as 90 percent of the entire collection is likely destroyed beyond salvation. As researchers and curators sift through the wreckage, they have been able to identify several iconic artifacts that will never be seen whole again.

  • Luzia. At 11,500 years, Luzia was arguably the oldest human skull ever discovered in the Americas. In all likelihood, the skull didn't survive, but there is some hope that its metal display case could have protected it.
  • Maxakalisaurus. Sauropods in South America thrived long after their heyday elsewhere in the world, and Maxakalisaurus was the largest ever discovered in Brazil. It probably didn't survive the fire.
  • Pompeii frescos. Ironically, these two relief sculptures made it through one of the most famous disasters in human history — the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. They did not, however, survive this fire.
  • Pre-Columbian artifacts. Approximately 100,000 pre-Columbian artifacts from across Latin America were housed at the museum, some from the private collection of Emperor Pedro II. These included funerary urns, Andean mummies, textiles, and ceramics. Given their materials, it's unlikely any survived.
  • Egyptian collection. The museum was home to the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Latin America, also begun in part by Pedro II. A 3-millennia-old sarcophagus, a mummified cat, and many art objects are likely gone.
  • The building itself. The museum may have been founded 200 years ago, but the building is even older. It was built as a palace for the Portuguese royal family after they fled Napoleon. Very little of what remains can be salvaged.

There's no coming back from a loss of this magnitude. But still, there's something you can do. Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Unirio) museology students are collecting tourist photos. If you happen to have been at the museum in recent years and you took photos, you can do your part to preserve what was lost by sending your images to thg.museo@gmail.com. Every photo can help.

Out of the Fire

Not all was lost, however. As protests outside the wreckage decry the museum's defunding in recent years — which can justifiably be seen as contributing to the tragedy — experts have been able to find some hope in what remains.

  • (Some) animal specimens. Five million mounted arthropods and one of the world's largest lace bug collections were destroyed, and so were several hundred taxidermied birds. However, the museum's fish and reptile collections, as well as their herbarium, were stored in a separate building and likely not affected.
  • Bone fragments. While experts aren't especially hopeful that materials like Luzia survived, there's still a chance. Bone fragments have been recovered in the aftermath, suggesting that it's at least possible that the famous skull survived.
  • The Bendegó meteorite. Arguably the crown jewel in the museum's collection, the Bendegó meteorite is the second-largest meteorite ever discovered at 11,600 pounds (5,260 kilograms). Comprised of iron and nickel, the enormous space rock weathered the chilly expanse of space and the fiery inferno alike.
  • Human life. One silver lining of the disaster? Nobody was injured. It might seem hard to believe when you see the photos of the towering flames, but no casualties were reported in the wake of the disaster. And that's something worth celebrating.

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Brazil is a country of contradictions, especially to the outside observer. "Brazil: A Biography" by Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling tells the story of the nation, from its colonial roots to its alternately troubled and jubilant present. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 4, 2018

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