We don't yet know what set off the fire last weekend that reduced Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum to a charred shell. Firefighters were still combing the ruins on Tuesday for clues to the blaze that razed Latin America’s marquee science museum along with most of its irreplaceable collection.
Brazil’s social media mobs weren’t waiting for the forensics. Factions blamed their favorite villains: ruthless bean counters, corrupt populists who lavished public money on friends, or the enemy du jour, hapless lame duck President Michel Temer.
The finger-pointing did not begin with the fire. It was merely an accelerant to the political conflagration that has grown fierce in the final stretch of the country’s most divisive electoral campaign in memory. General elections are next month.
Brazilians have good reason to be angry. Not content with compromising the future of Brazil’s signature metropolis with disastrous projects, with pillaging public coffers and with allowing deadly crime, it seems, the country’s political class has outdone itself and let a precious chunk of its past to go up in smoke.
Museum officials reckoned that just 10 percent of the collection survived the blaze. The Museu Nacional housed rarities like the skeleton of Maxakalisaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur that roamed the backlands 80 million years ago and the 11,000-year-old skull of Luzia, the earliest known Brazilian. “I am devastated,” Tania Andrade Lima, former museum curator of archaeology, told me. A paleobotanist I know said she was “too overwhelmed to talk.”
Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. And yet neither the museum’s miseries nor the warnings over the perils of neglect were anything new. The 200-year-old palace’s precarious condition has been a trending topic since at least 1958. What seems clear is that unless Brazilians shake off the partisan choler, a good deal more of the national heritage will surely be at risk.
Neglect, shoddy maintenance, gross mismanagement and budget cuts have regularly turned cultural gems into firetraps. In recent years fires have razed or partially destroyed the Museum of the Portuguese language (2015), a natural history museum in Minas Gerais (2013) and the nation’s premier reptile research center (2010). And let us not forget the disaster at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art, which burned down in 1978, claiming paintings by Klee, Picasso and Dali.
It's not only priceless artifacts endangered by Brazil's management, but even entire civilizations. Federal neglect has left Brazil’s indigenous communities — the country’s nominally protected isolated Amazonian tribes, whose blowguns and long bows are no match for chain saws, gun-toting miners and cattlemen, or their imported pathogens — in harm’s way.
It’s no small irony that dozens of scientists dedicated to understanding Brazil’s first inhabitants, and unlocking millennial secrets about how to manage the world’s largest rain-forest, did their cutting-edge research and stored relics at the National Museum.
“Archaeology is not just about digging up sites. We constantly go back to our collections to reexamine artifacts in light of new evidence and theories,” said Denise Gomes, a scholar of ceramics and ancient art in the central Amazon. “As well as the collection of intact pieces of pottery, which you don’t find anymore in the field, I kept site maps, field notebooks and sketches at the museum. This was years of documents, and I have no idea if any of this survived the fire.”
As the scientists scavenge for remnants of their work, policy makers and bureaucrats will have to face their errors and search for ways to safeguard historical treasures. Certainly, Brazil’s economic downturn has taken a toll; culture and the arts are often the first budget items on the block. But squandered resources are the real culprit.
Consider that the national development bank kicked back a $5 million rehab proposal in 2015 because the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which controls the museum, had neglected to include a fire prevention plan. The amended plan was finally approved this June, with disbursement of funds set for October. Losing hidebound convictions would be a good start.
Two decades ago, it seems, administrators at the government-funded school turned down the World Bank’s offer of $80 million to modernize the National Museum, apparently because the plan called for the university to turn over museum governance to an independent board, under a private nonprofit organization. Although taboo on the public campus, independent management is the model that has lifted the Sao Paulo Symphony and the National Institute for Applied and Pure Mathematics to world-caliber institutions.
Drive-by politics is another problem. While the outpouring over the museum’s destruction was genuine, rival political claques seemed less interested in discussing how to protect national monuments than in what political analyst Thiago de Aragão called weaponizing the tragedy for partisan agendas. For instance the Temer administration’s spokesman Carlos Marun belittled the government’s critics as “weeping widows” who “didn’t seem to love the museum so much.”
Although obviously engaged in political battle, he also may have a point. The tragedy is too recent and emotions too raw for facile lessons, but clearly Brazilians need to care for their cultural heritage as much as they do their partisan talking points.
That might not settle any political disputes, but it could save the next museum.
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