The fire that broke out at Brazil’s National Museum this week incinerated 200 years’ worth of history.
Days after the flames had been brought under control, specialists were still battling to determine the magnitude of the losses.
According to the museum’s vice director, Cristiana Serejo, more than 90 percent of its priceless collection was reduced to ash.
Among the items lost were the fossils of the largest dinosaur ever assembled in Brazil and the skeleton of Luzia, who lived more than 12,000 years ago and was considered one of the oldest examples of human remains in the Americas.
For the researchers affiliated with the National Museum, the blaze not only destroyed generations of work by scientists, but created a gap in opportunities for future experts.
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“We’re going to have a hole in the training that researchers in Brazil receive due to a lack of material, in addition to the cutbacks in scholarships and the lack of incentives,” palaeontologist Gabriela Sobral told HuffPost Brazil.
“This is a part of our history that has been wiped out that can no longer be accessed.”
The building in the Quinta da Boa Vista park in the capital, Rio de Janeiro, was known for its vast collections spanning archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, and the study of invertebrates (the latter containing about five million insects), as well as laboratories and classrooms. All of them were destroyed in Monday’s blaze.
The following day, Brazil’s federal government announced measures for the reconstruction of the building, expected to cost millions.
But there is still no indication on how long it will take for its collection to be restored time for the collection to be recovered – and whether it is even possible.
For the museum’s researchers, this will only become clear after extensive trawling by a dedicated task force.
As the painstaking work gets underway, three experts shared their views on the potential impact of the incident – and how they think it could have happened –with HuffPost.
Taissa Rodrigues, 36, Palaeontologist
The museum was a living witness to Brazil’s biodiversity and this collection was lost
“My research is on pterosaur fossils. I did my masters and my doctorate at the National Museum. My students all used the materials there. And as researchers, we studied biodiversity.
“Our questions are about how many species there were, how they lived, how they reproduced. So we used the fossils from the National Museum very often.
“People don’t know this, but Brazil has the best fossils of pterosaurs in the world. They are extremely well-kept and it is very rare to find a collection like that one.
“It’s just too sad to see this happen. Knowing that the material that I used for my research, the material from my collection that was not accessible to the public, must have been lost there.
“I have been attending the National Museum since 2005, mainly as part of the research for my master’s degree and doctorate.
“After that, I have maintained a close relationship with the people there. The space, as strange as it may seem, has improved a lot over these last few years.
“There is a project that was approved for a development agency, and they were able to buy new and sturdy shelves for the rooms. These shelves have helped to decrease the amount of dust and to prevent seepage, as well as mould on the fossils.
“But obviously we had problems. Chief among them was the physical space of the building, which was too small for the number of researchers. The building was not made to be a museum. It was a house, a palace. I have witnessed numerous renovations while I was there, we had to improvise rooms, the energy supply cut out, we didn’t have internet.
“The loss of the archival materials was unbearably sad. This includes all the collections, not just the fossils. From the logbook of the visitors’ signatures, to the mummies – which were unique – and the audio files of the extinct indigenous languages.
“The museum bore witness to the biodiversity of Brazil, and this collection was lost. We’re hoping to recover something, anything, especially the fossils and the rocks. Our biodiversity and part of our culture has been lost.
“There’s no way to overstate this. The people who worked there were responsible for all this history, this culture. They did everything they could to keep the museum going. They dedicated their lives to building this collection, which could be seen by all Brazilians.
“We now have a gap in our knowledge. Some things can be found in the published articles. But what about the materials that were still being studied?”
Gabriela Sobral, 35, Paleontologist
This has wiped out a part of our history that can no longer be accessed.
“I studied dinosaurs at the National Museum as an undergraduate. Later, I went back to the museum as a research associate for a post-doctoral project. But I had no funding, I paid for it all.
“But my post-doctoral research always involved some of the materials from the museum. I worked with the entire section of alligator fossils.
“At the time when I would frequent the museum space, the infrastructure was bad. The electrical grid was always a problem in the building. On several occasions, there was no electricity in the rooms, and this disrupted our work, or then rats would eat the wires, and so on.
“There was no wifi, it had an elevator but it would always break down and it was important for moving heavy materials.
“We also experienced problems with leaks, which risked affecting the collections. And when you have problems with the electrical network, this hampers any research project.
“There had already been occasions when I had to leave my computer on, running an analysis for one, two days, and when I returned, the work had been interrupted because there was a power outage or some energy surge that turned the computer off. And this delayed everything.
“On both a symbolic and a practical level, the work of a museum is about history. It is a team effort, and is exhausting. For the biological collections, for example, each researcher would collect a little bit, and as each little bit was collected, the groups of researchers would create the collection.
“Aside from this, there is the most basic thing about a scientific collection – the entire time you collect a new species, you have to make a report of the data and deposit it in what we call a ‘type’. This means that you describe a species based on one or a few individual members of it.
“And after depositing it at the museum, you create a database to compare other species. Then, you can compare all of this in the literature. We try to publish as many articles as possible in order for that information to be accessible, so that not all researchers have to go to the museum all the time. But the first-hand work that happened there is indispensable. And now, all of that is lost.
“The collection of the National Museum is very old and very extensive. In losing this historical record, we are losing materials that perhaps aren’t important now, but that would be very important in the future.
“We lost 20m specimens, but what is the impact of this on the future? The things that have not been studied?
“A life of research and teaching, where you no longer have any perspective, because the main collection was destroyed. Now, the researchers’ work will be almost completely focused on collecting material and doing repetitive work, because rather than getting new materials, you have to go back and pick up materials that had already been collected.
“We’re going to have a hole in the training that researchers in Brazil receive due to a lack of material, in addition to the cutbacks in scholarships and the lack of incentives. This has wiped out a part of our history that can no longer be accessed.”
Elena Monteiro Welper, 43, Anthropologist
I just found out the whole archive that I was researching was lost. I just want to cry forever.
“My post-doctoral research at the National Museum was a continuation of my masters research, which was about the life and work of Curt Nimuendajú, a German ethnologist, who is considered one of the founders of Brazilian ethnology.
“Nimuendajú produced an enormous amount of material on the Indians of Brazil and was an inspiration to big names in Brazilian ethnology, such as Darcy Ribeiro, for example.
“After his death in 1945, the National Museum bought his scientific materials, which included books, letters, diaries, field notebooks, reports, maps, photographs, and manuscripts, and this formed an archive composed of thousands of items.
“Since that time when I started the master’s degree, in 1999, it was quite clear that the facilities of the building were degraded, both for conservation and for the handling of such fragile documents. The physical structure of the museum was always left to quick fixes, with only the immediate needs being met.
“I can’t even speak straight. I just found out that the whole archive that I was researching was lost. I just want to cry forever. The destruction of the museum was, for the science and culture of Brazil, like the death of the Rio Doce for Brazilians – a pre-announced tragedy, and its consequences are immeasurable and irreversible.
“Not only for the scientific realm, but also with direct impacts on the lives of so many people who worked there.”