Second Brazilian museum fire in two years reignites calls for reform

A recent fire at a natural history museum in Minas Gerais is forcing some researchers to relive the pain of losing priceless specimens and artefacts.
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega is a science journalist in Mexico City.

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Rubble and the remains of fire-damaged storage racks.

Fire tore through several rooms used to store plant, animal and human specimens at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.Credit: Rogerio Pateo/NAV/DAA UFMG

Researchers in Brazil are sifting through the ashes of a fire that destroyed part of a museum in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais on 15 June. The blaze follows repeated warnings about fire risks at museums, and comes less than two years after a massive inferno gutted the prized National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.

The latest fire has reopened wounds in the research community and intensified a national conversation about the need to protect Brazil’s cultural and scientific heritage.

Mariana Lacerda, a geographer at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, received a disturbing Monday-morning call: a building at the university’s Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden, which she’d directed for almost a year, was in flames. When she arrived on the scene, smoke was still coming out of a single-storey building that housed thousands of artefacts, skeletal remains and taxidermied animals, many collected several decades ago.

Fire damage

Two storage rooms full of fossils and large archaeological objects were covered in soot and smoke. Flames had partly consumed a third room, which housed folk art, Indigenous artefacts and biological specimens. Two further rooms, housing important collections of insects, shells, birds, mammals, human bones and ancient plant remains were almost completely lost.

For these, “little hope remains of material that can be recovered”, Lacerda says. “Something that is so slow to build was destroyed so quickly, in just over an hour.”

Archaeologist André Prous, who started working at the museum in 1975, was devastated. He and his colleagues had amassed a collection of human remains from a range of periods, including some from the earliest known inhabitants of Brazil, as well as samples of cultivated and wild plant species. Prous had also seen part of his life’s work disappear during the 2018 fire at the National Museum, when ancient skulls that he helped to collect in the 1970s were destroyed.

“The sadness is matched only by the fear that other, similar disasters will continue to destroy [Brazil’s] scientific heritage,” he says. Some stone artefacts, ceramics and documentation of the sites he has excavated survived the blaze.

Historic losses

Brazilian museums have faced a series of fires, often resulting in irreparable losses, says Carolina Vilas Boas, director of museum processes at the Brazilian Institute of Museums in Brasilia. At least 12 buildings of cultural or scientific significance have burnt in the country, many of them in the past 10 years (see ‘History in flames’). But the full extent of the damage is hard to know, says Vilas Boas, because reporting is probably incomplete.

Timeline showing sites relevant to Brazil’s scientific history that have caught fire.

Brazil is not unique in losing heritage institutions to fire, she says, but the country does have a poor record in taking care of its museums. Often, fire-prevention systems are installed, but budgets are too thin to maintain them properly. “There are many actions being taken to mitigate this risk,” she says, but recurring economic crises have hindered long-term planning.

“That lack of resources had no relation to the fire in the collection’s storage rooms,” says Ricardo Hallal Fakury, a structural-engineer at the UFMG. He did not speculate as to the cause of the fire, because investigations are still under way. But he says that the building that burnt was equipped with smoke detectors, and was mostly built of non-flammable materials.

The tragedy in Belo Horizonte has amplified a decades-long discussion among Brazilian scientists pushing for national and state-level policies to help protect research collections, says Luciane Marinoni, an entomologist at the Federal University of Paraná and president of the Brazilian Society of Zoology, both in Curitiba. “The community is upset because we have been trying to solve this problem with the federal government but without success.”

A man in a hard hat and face mask inspects fire-damaged storage units.

Pedro Mastrobuono, president of the Brazilian Institute of Museums, examines a section of the museum consumed by the fire on 15 June.Credit: Rogerio Pateo/NAV/DAA UFMG

Some protective policies already exist. In 2017, the southern state of Paraná established norms and guidelines for the recognition of biological collections, defining who has responsibility for them, and putting in place objectives and goals to expand them and provide maintenance. Last year, the policy helped researchers to convince the government of Paraná to allocate 2 million reais (US$370,000) for the state’s collections over the next three years. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a solid start, says Marinoni: “The collections are leaving the darkness.”

Back in Belo Horizonte, scientists are cleaning up after the fire. This time, however, they have some guidance on how to move forward.

National Museum researchers have teamed up with Lacerda to advise on the recovery of items that might still be salvageable. They are sharing protocols they developed after the 2018 blaze with UFMG professors and students who have volunteered to help. “Unfortunately, we are now experts in this matter,” says palaeontologist Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum. “We went through it. We know the mistakes to avoid, we have a way to act, we have a methodology.”

Nature 583, 175-176 (2020)

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