Conservation news

A Brazilian mourns what was lost in the National Museum fire

Brazil’s National Museum on fire. Image by Erick Dau / Farpa.

This story appears courtesy of a co-publication partnership between Mongabay and ((O))eco. The original story can be read here in Portuguese.

Forty years ago, in July 1978, neglect of Brazil’s culture and heritage by Rio de Janeiro’s public officials and business entrepreneurs resulted in the destruction of the Museum of Modern Art (MAM). Struck by a fire, it lost more than 90 percent of its collection. The blaze consumed about a thousand artworks, among them those by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and the Brazilians Cândido Portinari and Di Cavalcanti. Only 50 works survived, mostly sculptures.

One realizes today that no lessons were learned from that irreparable loss of a unique artistic legacy.

Now we have lost the National Museum of Quinta da Boa Vista, the oldest natural history museum in South America, founded by King of Portugal Dom João VI in 1808. The museum celebrated its 200th anniversary in June.

On Sunday night, September 2, 2018, a major fire totally consumed the main building of the museum, a colonial palace that served as the imperial home for Dom Pedro II and his family.

In historical terms, therefore, the destruction of Brazil’s National Museum is comparable to the loss of the Louvre or Versailles.

In cultural and scientific terms, the extent of the loss is immeasurable. Palaces can be rebuilt to their former grandeur and likeness. Scientific collections, once lost, are forever. The National Museum was the depository of the largest collection of specimens of the flora and fauna of South America.

Fortunately, the collections of vertebrates, and the botany collection, all installed 30 years ago in an annex, were not reached by the fire. The scientific value of those collections saved is immense. But heartbreaking is the value of all that has been lost. The following account summarizes those tragic losses.

Skeletons of two ground sloths and a smilodon saber-toothed cat, lost in the fire. Collection of the National Museum of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro. Image by Dornicke licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Paleontology

The museum’s Paleontology technical reserve and its exhibit wing housed practically all the fossils of plants and animals, vertebrates and invertebrates, discovered in Brazil throughout the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th century. The accumulated fossil record of tens of millions of years of evolution in Brazil and South America was lost in just six hours.

Among the paleontological heritage consumed by fire, the first examples that come to my mind are the two dozen pterosaur fossils of the Araripe Chapada, mostly discovered and described by the current museum director, paleontologist Alex Kellner.

Also coming from the Araripe’s limestone deposits were thousands of precious insect and plant fossils, a testimony of the fauna and flora that inhabited the lands and seas of Brazil’s Northeast when the Atlantic Ocean opened 110 million years ago.

I also remember the dozens of dinosaur fossils, and hundreds of copies of the ice age megafauna that inhabited Brazilian lands 2 million years ago. Among the dinosaurs, there were reconstructions of the skeletons of Maxakalisaurus and Uberabatitan, giants growing larger than 10 meters (roughly 33 feet) that inhabited Southeast Brazil. For years, exhibited next to them, was the skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur, Araripe’s Angaturama. There was also the reconstruction of the oldest Brazilian dinosaur, the staurikosaurus, a beast the size of a dog that lived in Rio Grande do Sul 225 million years ago.

Hovering over all this wonderful collection — charming and brightening the eyes of children visiting the permanent exhibit — there were skeletons of the pterosaurs described by Kellner, given suggestive indigenous names such as Anhanguera and Tupandactylus.

Among other megafauna lost, the skeletons of the two giant sloths and the saber-toothed tiger exhibited in the museum’s main hall, where they were assembled in 1945 by Carlos de Paula Couto and Llewelyn Ivor Price, the two biggest names in Brazilian paleontology in the first half of the 20th century.

The great legacy of Paula Couto was destroyed: this includes the fossils of primitive mammals, among them the oldest armadillo known, who lived 50 million years ago in Itaboraí. These fossils were found at the bottom of a cave in an old limestone mine, now abandoned, on the other side of Guanabara Bay. Also lost are hundreds of delicate fossils that represent the main and most important record of a Brazilian environment during the Paleogene, the geologic period extending from the extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, up to 23 million years ago.

Do not think, or hope, that because they are made of stone, fossils can withstand intact a great fire. They cannot.  The damage caused by the very high temperatures almost certainly put an end to the bulk of the collections, and especially the very delicate insects, fossilized leaves and thin bones of the pterosaurs. Certainly the weight of the collapsing building destroyed the little that, by chance, still remained.

The Bendegó meteorite, a National Museum fire survivor. Image by Erick Dau / Farpa.

Geology

There’s a drop of hope in all the ruination. Perhaps, just maybe, most of the tens of thousands of items in the National Museum’s collection of stones, rocks and crystals may have survived the fire.

It is already known that the first to go into the meteorite room in the blaze’s aftermath found the largest meteorite known in Brazil remaining intact. This is the Bendegó, a gigantic, black, shapeless block, an iron monolith of more than 5 tons, which missed the earth for 4.6 billion years until it fell into the interior of Bahia state, where it was found in 1784; it was transported to Rio in 1888.

If the Bendego did not melt during its exposure to the fire’s intense 800-degree heat, perhaps other parts of the National Museum’s geological collection — one of the largest — can be saved.

Luzia’s facial features, a reconstruction made using her ancient skull. A Paleo-Indian woman, her bones represent the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas. Her remains, along with those of many others, were incinerated in the fire. Image by Guilherme Braga Alves/Facebook.

Anthropology

This is another department where the loss was total.

The Anthropology area of ​​the National Museum was divided into several sections. Ethnology, for example, kept masks, weapons and utensils documenting the cultures of countless Brazilian indigenous peoples, collected over two centuries by museum anthropologists.

In Physical Anthropology, the most visible loss was the skull of Luzia, “the first Brazilian,” found in 1977 in a cave in Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais state, where the woman lived 12,500 years ago.

The study of Luzia’s face in the 1980s by biologist Walter Alves Neves of the University of São Paulo was a turning point in the understanding of the settlement of the Americas. He determined that Luzia’s features were more similar to Africans than American Indians, and suggested a first human migration from Asia to America more than 13,000 years ago. According to the biologist, the founding ancestors of the lineages for all the indigenous nations of the Americas would have crossed the Bering Strait much later, just over 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.

It was not only Luzia’s skull that was lost. There were, for example, in the human skeleton collection of the National Museum, dozens of skulls of the Botocudo indigenous group. It was this name that Portuguese settlers gave to members of a tribe of warriors who lived until the middle of the 19th century in the Doce River valley, between Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and Bahia.

The Botocudos, or “vis aimorés,” as mentioned in the poem I-Juca Pirama, of Gonçalves Dias, were dubbed with this nickname due to the great wooden discs (the botoques) that they inserted into their lips and ears.

The Botocudos were not Tupi, but belonged to the macro-jê linguistic group. These warriors always avoided contact with the white colonizers. In order to “pacify” the Doce River region, during the reign of Dom Pedro II, a war was waged against them, which resulted in the extermination of all Botocudos. The only physical evidence and testimony of that people’s existence was the dozens of Botocudo skulls preserved in the National Museum. They no longer exist.

Debris after the fire. Image by Erick Dau / Farpa.

Archeology

The National Museum was the depository of a large collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities assembled by Dom Pedro II during his global travels in the 19th century. This was the largest single collection of Egyptian artifacts in South America, and included statues, sarcophagi, mummies and everyday items such as a polished metal disk that served as a mirror to a woman who lived among the pharaohs.

From the Greeks and Romans, the museum housed statues and busts in bronze and limestone, weapons, utensils and precious coins. All were destroyed. Incidentally, the numismatic collection of the National Museum was among the largest and most complete on the continent. The nickel, zinc, gold, silver and bronze of which these thousands of coins were made now form misshapen drops of blackened metal, lost amidst the rubble and soot of what for 200 years was the great repository of Brazilian natural history.

Of course, the near total loss of a heritage that is as diverse, unique and important as that of the National Museum affects each person in its own particular way. I suffer most from the loss of the paleontological and invertebrate collections, but I also am upset by everything else that has been destroyed.

My stepchild, the 9-year-old Dudu, who had the chance to visit the museum two years ago, was shocked when he learned of the fire. He is saddened by the loss of the dinosaurs, but was especially aggrieved by the destruction of a replica of a giant 5-foot squid that hovered above the heads of visitors in the hall where shells and crabs were exhibited.

A giant squid that hung overhead in the museum, greeting visitors and especially delighting children. Image by EBC.

What survives at the National Museum

In all this devastation, there is some good news. Almost all of the museum collections that remain preserved were located in either the Botanical Garden, a park annex at the National Museum Library, and in other buildings that house the Departments of Botany, Vertebrates, and the Archaeological Collection of the National Museum. Among the collections that survive:

Vertebrates: The National Museum is one of the largest vertebrate research centers in South America. Its collection comprises one of the largest and most representative scientific collections on neotropical biodiversity in the world. The total collection comprises close to 1 million pieces, and is divided into four sections. There are 90,000 amphibians and 30,000 reptiles in the herpetology section, 500,000 fish in ichthyology, 100,000 mammals in mastozoology, and 66,000 birds in ornithology.

Botany: The Department of Botany of the National Museum works inside the Botanical Garden, next to the museum. Its land was annexed to the National Museum in 1896. This area is intended for plant cultivation and biological experiments. Horto Botanico currently covers ​​40,000 square meters, where an important green area of ​​20,000 square meters consists of vegetation from a variety of Brazilian ecosystems as well as exotic species.

Correction: This story when originally reported was hopeful that the museum’s entomology section, with one of the largest, most representative collections of insects in Latin America, was saved. In fact, it was destroyed by the fire. Created in 1842 the collection had 5 million specimens, including butterflies (order Lepidoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), flies (Diptera), wasps, bees and ants (Hymenoptera), grasshoppers and crickets (Orthoptera), cicadas, bedbugs, aphids and scale insects (Hemiptera), dragonflies (Odonata), cockroaches (Blattaria) and moths (Apterygota). The invertebrate department was also home to millions of specimens of spiders, scorpions and opossums (arachnology), crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps and lobsters (Carcinology), corals and anemones (Celenterology), starfish and sea ​​urchins (Echinodermatology), marine sponges and freshwater (Spongiology), slugs and snails (Malacology), and mollusks such as mussels and oysters.

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The National Museum’s paleontology collection was completely destroyed by Sunday’s fire. Image by Celso Abreu on Flickr.
The 200-year-old National Museum as it looked before it burned. Image by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.