Brazilian Museum Fires: Losses to the Scientific Record

By Katie Lloyd

On September 2nd, 2018, a fire broke out at the National Museum of Brazil, making international news. Apart of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, it was Brazil’s oldest scientific and historical museum. In addition to being important to its country, it was also the biggest natural history institution in Latin America (Phillips, 2018).  

Despite its connection to higher education, the museum had been neglected due to federal cuts to science and education funding (Angelo, 2017). The museum directly before the fire had a lot of problems and among them were leaks, termites and a sprinkler system that was not powerful enough to work (Yong, 2018). To make matters worse, firefighters did not have enough water when at the scene and water trucks had to be sent in (Phillips, 2018). 

When the building was still smoking, most of the archive was believed to have been destroyed, an aspect now known to be true (Lyons, 2018 & Machemer, 2020). The structure that was once three stories was reduced to one. Only around ten percent of the collection is housed elsewhere, and employees and firefighters carried out what they could when the flames were still blazing (Lyons, 2018). Crucially, while certain artifacts are made of materials that could possibly survive the flames, the labels and other printed data are more likely to have been destroyed. Without the record, the scientific significance disappears (Yong, 2018).  

Days after the blaze, students took to the site to protest the Brazilian government and its budget cuts. Many went insofar to say the money for any restoration or renovation was diverted by the government. People are especially angry because the government found the funds in order to host the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics, but not to protect the country’s most important cultural artifacts (Berlinger et al., 2018). 

While many thought the recovery efforts would last until the end of 2019, they were not complete before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which suspended the search. The official investigation was completed in July 2020, and the fire was found to be started by an AC unit near the front entrance (Biller, 2020). By the time the salvage efforts were postponed, a few thousand artifacts were recovered, only a tiny portion of the museums original twenty million (Solly, 2019).  

Shortly before the results of the investigation were released to the public, the Natural History Museum and Botanical, another cultural institution in Brazil, went up in flames. While only part of the museum Garden in Minas Gerais succumbed to fire, storerooms of significant relics were destroyed. Nationwide discussions about the lack of protection for the country’s scientific, historical, and other cultural institutions were brought back into the national spotlight (Rodríguez Mega, 2020). 

Reflections on the other ten cultural institutions that had significant fire damage before the infamous 2018 fire were discussed (Rodríguez Mega, 2020). Additionally, even though the risk of fire affecting cultural institutions is a worldwide issue, conversations into how the cultural institutions of Brazil are disproportionally at more risk came up in reflections on the fire. Most of their museums install fire systems, but the upkeep becomes too expensive (Machemer, 2020). And things are not looking up in that department, as decreases to budgets continue to be the norm (Hipólito et al, 2021).  

Fires have continued to cause irreparable cultural damage, in July 2021 a Brazilian film archive was partially destroyed in San Paolo (Fire destroys Brazil film archive, 2021). Plus, with the country’s recent increase in wildfires, whether naturally or related to land clearing, the risk to Brazil’s cultural institutions increases as well (Pivello et al, 2021). Without a comprehensive solution and a sustained increase in funds for the protection of the country’s scientific and historic artifacts, the pattern of destruction is going to continue.


Works Cited  

Angelo, C. (2017). Scientists plead with Brazilian government to restore funding. Nature, 550(7675). 


Berlinger, J., Charner, F., & Gast, P. (2018, September 4). Police, protesters clash after Brazil’s National Museum goes up in flames. CNN. 


Biller, D. (2020, July 6). Brazil police finish investigation into National Museum fire. AP NEWS. 


Fire destroys Brazil film archive. (2021, July 30). France 24. 


Hipólito, J., Shirai, L. T., Diele-Viegas, L. M., Halinski, R., Soares Pires, C. S., & Fontes, E. M. G. (2021). Brazilian budget cuts further threaten gender equality in research. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 


Lyons, K. (2018, September 3). Brazilians mourn museum’s priceless collection amid anger at funding cuts. The Guardian. 


Machemer, T. (2020, July 6). Second Brazilian Museum Fire in Two Years Sparks Calls for Reform. Smithsonian Magazine. 


Phillips, D. (2018, September 3). Brazil museum fire: “incalculable” loss as 200-year-old Rio institution gutted. The Guardian. 


Pivello, V. R., Vieira, I., Christianini, A. V., Bandini Ribeiro, D., da Silva Menezes, L., Niel Berlinck, C., Melo, F. P. L., Antonio Marengo, J., Gustavo Tornquist, C., Moraes Tomas, W., & Overbeck, G. E. (2021). Understanding Brazil’s catastrophic fires: Causes, consequences and policy needed to prevent future tragedies. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, 19(3), 233–255. 


Rodríguez Mega, E. (2020). Second Brazilian museum fire in two years reignites calls for reform. Nature, 583(7815), 175–176. 


Solly, M. (2019, February 15). Around 2,000 Artifacts Have Been Saved from the Ruins of Brazil’s National Museum Fire. Smithsonian Magazine. 


Yong, E. (2018, September 4). What Was Lost in Brazil’s Devastating Museum Fire?, The Atlantic. 


About Author(s)