Brazil's National Museum on fire

On 2 September 2018, a fire raged through Brazil's National Museum destroying tens of thousands of items © Felipe Milanez/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists support restoration of Brazil's National Museum collections after fire

In September 2018, a fire engulfed Brazil's National Museum (Museu Nacional), the country's oldest scientific institute.

Museum scientists and Director Sir Michael Dixon have visited the site in Rio de Janeiro to run workshops, share expertise and sign a five-year memorandum of understanding between the two institutions. 

On the night of 2 September 2018, a fire raged through Brazil's most important historical and scientific museum, gutting the main palace and destroying tens of thousands of priceless specimens and artefacts.

Curators, staff and firefighters worked throughout the night, desperately trying to save what they could. They formed human chains to save objects from the blaze, until the blistering intensity of the fire drove them back.

When dawn broke the next day, the teams were able to get their first look at the devastation.

They found the charred, smouldering beams of the collapsed roof strewn across the ground floor, having come crashing down with the floors above. Twisted metal girders were entwined with the remains of display cabinets, fossils and archaeological material smashed to pieces.   

Initial reports confirmed the worst: only a fraction of the items that had been housed inside the main building had survived.

The museum lost its entire collection relating to indigenous languages and history, including recordings, documents, artefacts and photos of indigenous Brazilian groups. The loss of recordings means that some languages, now dead, can never be heard again.

The Bendegó meteorite

After the ash had settled, firefighters found that the Bendegó meteorite was remarkably intact © Jorge Andrade/Wikimedia Commons

The majority of the entomology collection was consumed by the flames, including many specimens that were collected from forests that no longer exist and are now irreplaceable. 

But among the ashes were survivors.

One widely shared image showed the Bendegó meteorite still standing, while as the recovery was underway the 11,500 year old remains of Luzia Woman, thought to have once been one of the earliest humans to have migrated to South America, were found among the rubble.

Slowly, as the firefighters and staff started to sift through the ash, they began to find more and more artefacts, but the rebuilding of the museum will not come easily or quickly.

Rebuilding the museum

After the devastating extent of the fire was fully established, the British Council in Brazil offered a grant to the National Museum to aid in the digitisation of the collections that were able to be salvaged.

As a leader in the digitisation of collections, the Natural History Museum has partnered with the National Museum to share knowledge, expertise and advice on this process. 

Brazil's National Museum before the fire

The restoration of the museum has begun, with the Natural History Museum partnering up to advise on the digitisation of objects © marcusrg/Flickr

To date the Museum has digitised over 4.3 million specimens from its collections, ranging from flies to dinosaurs. While it's not a replacement for the original specimens, digitising them means that they can be downloaded and used by a wider group of researchers to help answer questions on a variety of topics such as human health, biodiversity and climate change. 

Sir Michael Dixon, the Director the Museum, 'The fire at the Museu Nacional Brazil was not only a tragedy for the global museum community but for anyone who loves the natural world.

'We are making this declaration of support to one of our international counterparts, because we understand the global necessity of these collections to further advance our scientific knowledge of the planet we live on and to help humanity make better decisions now and for the future.'

From 26 to 29 August 2019, Sir Michael will travel to Rio de Janeiro along with Clare Valentine, Head of Life Sciences Collections at the Museum, and Dr Vince Smith, a Museum research leader, to take part in a week of workshops and presentations with staff from museums across Brazil. Clare will talk about her role in overseeing the conservation and curation of the Life Sciences collection at the Museum, while Vince will discuss his work in digitising the 80 million objects that the Museum holds. 

Professor Alexander Kellner, Director of Museu Nacional Brazil, says, 'We are very pleased with this initiative and are looking forward for a lasting collaboration that includes the scientific aspects and a rebuilding of our collection from original material.'

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