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Outrage Follows Fire That Consumed Brazil's National Museum

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL—Hundreds of protesters clashed with police on Monday, September 3, after a massive fire gutted Brazil’s National Museum destroying most of the two-hundred-year-old institution’s holdings of twenty million historical objects. The blaze began after the museum closed to the public around 7:30 PM on Sunday evening and quickly engulfed the building. It took more than eighty firefighters six hours to extinguish the flames.

While investigators are still trying to determine how the fire started, demonstrators are claiming years of financial neglect led to the museum’s downfall—due to budgetary woes a sprinkler system was never installed. Besides fire extinguishers and smoke detectors the institution was not equipped to handle a blaze.

According to the Art Newspaper, the police used tear gas to prevent the people who gathered to see what was left of the beloved cultural institution from trying to enter the museum. Many place the blame for the catastrophe with Brazilian president Michel Temer and former president Dilma Rousseff, who have been accused of mismanaging public funds. Two years ago, money flowed into the city of Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, as well as two years before that for the 2014 World Cup, but much of it was lost to corruption and a recession. As a result public services and cultural institutions suffered.

Others have placed the fault with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which is the body that oversees the museum and its finances. Two decades ago, former mayor Israel Klabin, who was the head of the university, allegedly turned down an offer of $80 million to renovate the insitution from the World Bank over a stipulation that required the museum to become a nonprofit organization.

Sérgio Sá Leitão, Brazil’s culture minister, told the New York Times that the fire erupted just weeks before the National Museum was to receive $5 million for facility upgrades, which included a fire suppression system.

The fire incinerated years-worth of research and rare artifacts that included a twelve-thousand-year-old skeleton known as Luzia—the oldest human remains found in the Americas. It also devastated the historic building which once served as a palace that housed two emperors and a king over the course of its history.

While the exterior of the museum seems to be intact, the roof of the structure collapsed and the interior has been mostly reduced to rubble. According to Cristiana Serejo, the institution’s deputy director, about 10 percent of the museum’s collection had been spared. A large meteorite and a portion of the zoology exhibit are among the materials that survived.

“It’s a moment of intense pain,” paleartist Maurilio Oliveira, who has worked at the museum for the last nineteen years, told the New York Times. “We can only hope to recover our history from the ashes. Now, we cry and get to work.”

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September 10, 2018