A Roman fresco from the ancient city of Pompeii was among the items in a 20-million-strong collection lost to a massive fire which destroyed Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.
- Museum houses artefacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and Brazil’s ancient fossils
- There were no reported injuries, fire began after museum closed to the public
- Officials say the museum suffered chronic underfunding
The museum housed artefacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and some of the first fossils found in Brazil, including the 11,500-year-old skeleton of a woman nicknamed ‘Luzia’ which was found in a cave in 1975 and was the oldest fossil of a human found in the Americas.
The Egyptian artefact collection, the largest in Latin America, included items which once belonged to Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Belzoni — who was the first person to get into the second pyramid of Giza and cleared the sand from the entrance of Abu Simbel temple complex.
The museum also was home to the 5,260-kilogram Bendego Meteorite, the biggest iron meteorite found on Brazilian soil.
Dr Ana Lucia Araujo twitter: “With the total destruction of Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro, a 200-year institution, 20 million artifacts and historic building were lost, Museu Nacional is the equivalent of the British Museum in Brazil. Losing it is devastating, still a disgrace that could have been avoided”
Washington-based historian and Howard University professor Ana Lucia Araujo wrote on Twitter that the museum was of comparable importance to the British Museum in London or the Musee de quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris.
She said the 20 million items at the Brazilian museum was significantly more than the 8 million items at the British and the 450,000 at the quai Branly and accused the Brazilian Government of cutting funding.
“Losing it is devastating, still a disgrace that could have been avoided,” Dr Araujo wrote.
A former member of the Catalan Parliament, Alfons Lopez Tena, also mourned the loss of some key items from the museum — sharing images of them on social media — saying “everyone has to cry together”.
Alfons Lopez Tena tweet: “A Roman fresco from Pompeii, spared by Vesuvius fire, has been destroyed by the blaze in Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro”
It was not immediately clear how the fire began on Sunday night (local time) but in a statement the museum said the blaze started after it had closed to the public.
President Michel Temer said the destruction of the building, once a palace for Portugal’s royal family and Brazil’s imperial family that had fallen into disrepair, was an “incalculable loss for Brazil”.
“A sad day for all Brazilians … 200 years of work, investigation and knowledge have been lost,” Mr Temer said.
There were no reported injuries in the fire.
Roberto Robadey, a spokesman for the fire department, said 80 firefighters were battling the blaze and that by midnight (local time) it was, “just about under control” and was close to being fully extinguished.
Mr Robadey said firefighters got off to a slow start fighting the blaze because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not functioning. Instead, trucks had to be sent to get water from a nearby lake.
But he added that some of the museum’s pieces had been spared.
“We were able to remove a lot of things from inside with the help of workers of the museum,” Mr Robadey told Globo News.
‘The museum suffered chronic underfunding’
Connected to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the museum has expositions that include anthropology, archaeology and palaeontology, among others.
The vice director of the museum, Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, told Globo news the museum suffered chronic underfunding.
The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was formerly home to the Portuguese Royal Family. (Supplied: Museu Nacional )
“Everybody wants to be supportive now … We never had adequate support,” he said.
“We never got anything from the Federal Government …We recently finalised an agreement with (state-run development bank) BNDES for a massive investment, so that we could finally restore the palace and, ironically, we had planned on a new fire prevention system.”
Brazil has struggled to emerge from its worst recession in decades.
The state of Rio de Janeiro has been particularly hard hit in recent years thanks to a combination of falling oil prices, mismanagement and massive corruption.
On Instagram, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called on the country to rebuild.
“It’s a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every eternal detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the [Portuguese] empire and the first constitution and national unity,” he said.
Many of the museum’s collections came from members of Brazil’s royal family. (AP: Leo Correa)