Museums are one of our most favourite things. Their priceless artifacts of culture, wildlife, and science help answer so many of our deepest questions, all while giving us reasons to ask new ones. Whether you're a fan of armoured humans or armoured dinosaurs, museums deliver us their one-of-a-kind goods.
It's why every museum has such a strict, unspoken policy about not touching anything. Any time an artifact from a museum's collection is damaged—never mind lost or stolen—it can rarely be restored or replaced. When you're dealing with objects that each tell a unique story of our planet, each loss is its own little tragedy.
That's why the huge fire that destroyed Brazil's National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday evening is a massive tragedy. It's many millions of little losses grouped together.
What was the National Museum?
The National Museum was the largest natural history museum in Latin America (a combination of Central and South America, as well as Mexico). It had over 20 million artifacts, including exotic birds and butterflies, unique pterosaur and dinosaur specimens, rare mummies from Egypt to Chile, art from around the world, and so much more. Even the building itself was an important artifact.
The museum was housed inside the Paço de São Cristóvão (Palace of Saint Christopher), a historic building that was originally built in 1803. Since 1817, this was a palace for the Portuguese royal family (Portugal was the European country that colonized Brazil in 1500s). The building was also used by the country's government for a time.
At first, the National Museum was located elsewhere in Rio, at Campo de Santana. Then in 1892, the museum was permanently moved to the palace. Altogether, the museum had been a part of Brazil's scientific community for around 200 years. Then came the fire.
What was lost in the fire?
Knowing that will take time. But it was definitely a lot...
The fire almost completely destroyed the palace—all that remains are the old walls of the building. Thankfully, the National Museum's main library and some specimens are located in another building that escaped the fire. But around 90% of the museum's collection was found in the main building. And these artifacts—fossils, artwork, fabrics, and organic materials—were all very fragile.
After spending hours in heat that can even crack rock, experts fear that next-to-nothing survived. In fact, one of the only confirmed objects that remain is the museum's famous Bendegó meteorite, an 11,600-pound rock that did survive a plunge through our atmosphere, after all.
What happened ... and why?
We won't know the precise cause of the fire for a while. But many in Brazil—as well as scientists around the world—are furious with the Brazilian government over the blaze. Why? Because they feel like it was obvious a tragedy like this was coming.
Remember how we mentioned that the building was very old? It was also in terrible shape. It had never been fully renovated and had no sprinkler system. People had been saying that the National Museum needed help since the 1990s. Maybe it would be a renovation? Maybe it should just be moved? But something needed to be done, they felt.
Sadly, nothing was. Would repairs have saved the National Museum? It likely would've lessened the damage, at least. Now 200 years' worth of research and study is gone. If you ever needed a reason to visit your local museum, we suppose this news is it.
Give the past a hug. You never really know when it might be gone for good.