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Devastating Fire At Brazil’s National Museum is a Cultural Tragedy

Recognized as one of Latin America’s most prominent museums, Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Nacional caught fire Sunday night, destroying an estimated 90% of the museum’s inventory. The cause of the fire is still being investigated along with the final toll of the damage.

“The loss of the National Museum’s collection is insurmountable for Brazil,” President Michel Temer tweeted on Sunday.

The fire started at around 7:30pm on Sunday night taking more than six hours for 80 firefighters from 21 stations to extinguish the blaze. The engulfing flames turned more than 20 million pieces of history into ashes.

A majority of what was lost was held in the 200-year-old Imperial Palace. Once home to the Portuguese family, the museum’s main building housed an extensive collection of paleontological, anthropological and biological specimens, according to the Associated Press. One of the museum’s most famous artifacts, a more than 11,000-year-old skull named Luzia that was believed to be among the oldest fossils ever found in the Americas was also destroyed. It also held ancient Egyptian artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, statues and stone carvings, and displayed the largest meteorite ever discovered in Brazil — one of the few artifacts that officials confirmed had survived.

Museum employees were among the people who rushed to the scene of the fire to mourn and protest the loss. Al Jazeera reported that police fired tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd to stop them from entering the premises.

The devastating fire has brought to light concerns surrounding the country’s corruption and mismanagement of funds, which left the museum susceptible to a fire. The National Museum is not run directly by the federal government but by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The museum’s director, Alexander Kellner, told reporters on Monday that his staff has struggled to keep up the institution since its budget was first cut in 2014.

“This is the genesis of your country, yours, yours, my country — do you understand?,” said  Kellner. “We need society to help us. A part of our heritage was taken from us. Don’t let us lose our history, because it’s the history of Brazil. Of all of you.”

Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Braganca, an heir to Brazil’s last emperor, told AP, “The building could be rebuilt, but the collection will never again be rebuilt. Two hundred years, workers, researchers, professors that dedicated in body and soul (to the museum) … the work of their life burned due to the negligence of the Brazilian state.”