GETTY IMAGESBUDA MENDES
Over the weekend, Brazil suffered a devastating loss to its scientific history. Brazil’s National Museum caught fire on Sunday, quickly burning almost to rubble in the span of a few hours. Millions of irreplaceable artifacts and specimens are feared lost.
Brazil’s National Museum was founded in 1818 by King João VI, and moved to its current location in 1892. It was one of the oldest museums in the Americas, and contained a collection of around 20 million objects from the fields of natural history and archaeology.
However, for the past few decades funding problems, along with an aging building, have put the museum in jeopardy. The last decade in particular saw severe funding cuts to the institution, and curators didn’t even have enough money to maintain the exhibits, let alone the building they were contained in. Tellingly, at one point the museum had to crowdfund money to repair the base of one of its dinosaur fossils.
With so little money and no way to modernize the building—which was built in 1803—the museum’s curators feared for their exhibits. The museum building had no sprinkler system, which put the building and all of its exhibits at risk of fire. Over the past few decades, curators tried to move exhibits to a new location, but funding woes made that nearly impossible as well.
“This was an announced tragedy that is the result of years of budget cuts,” said historian Ana Lucia Araujo on Twitter. “Other tragedies like this can happen any time in numerous museums, libraries, and archives in Brazil.”
We may never know the full extent of what was lost in Sunday’s fire, but here’s a sample of the pieces that never made it out: A collection of 5 million butterflies and other insects, some of which are likely extinct. Dozens of Egyptian artifacts, including a nearly 3,000-year-old sarcophagus. Audio recordings of indigenous languages and relics from those cultures, including languages that are no longer spoken.
Perhaps the biggest loss of all is a 12,000-year-old human skull, named ‘Luzia,’ that is one of the oldest human fossils ever discovered in the Americas. Scientists have long studied Luzia for clues as to how the first humans on the continents lived and died, and now the best outcome is that we manage to recover a handful of fragments.
“This catastrophe… is like a lobotomy in Brazilian memory,” said presidential candidate Marina Silva.
With the scope of what was lost, it’s unlikely that Brazil—or the global scientific community—will ever recover. The only way forward for the museum’s staff is to pick up the pieces and move on, but so much was lost that can never be recovered or rebuilt. One can only hope this tragedy spurs the Brazilian government to devote more resources and care to what remains.
Previously published by: Popular Mechanics USA