A photo capturing internal devastation at a museum
Yet still alive. A photo capturing internal devastation at the museum. Photo Pablo Rossello ©

British Council, adapted from the original.

March 2019

As the eyes of the world are on Notre-Dame, Insight looks at the aftermath of the fire that recently devastated the Brazilian National Museum, which was also waiting restoration that was held up by bureaucracy and underfunding, to ask what lessons can be learned.

One of the world’s most important museums destroyed by flames

Tragically on the night of 2 September 2018, a short circuit fault within an air conditioning unit at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro caused a devastating fire which gutted the building, leading to the loss of more than 18.5 million items and artefacts held in the museum collections. An estimated five per cent of the entire collection – which was originated 200 years ago by the Portuguese royal family at that time – survived an inferno which blazed into the night sky of Rio and saw the destruction of one of the most important libraries of natural history in the world. It was a loss so significant to Brazil that to give it an equivalent, it would be as if both the UK's Natural History Museum and Buckingham Palace had gone up in flames.

A significant loan to restore the museum had only recently been approved by the National Social and Economic Development Bank in Brazil, but it had not yet been processed due to the slow bureaucracy of the institution

Museum Director, Professor Alexander Kellner, recognised the irony in the fact that a significant loan to restore the museum had only recently been approved by the National Social and Economic Development Bank in Brazil, but it had not yet been processed due to the slow bureaucracy of the institution. It is difficult to say whether more prompt receipt of the loan might have been responsible for preserving the historic building and its collections. But one thing is clear – risk management was seriously lacking at this time. Even though the Federal grant for running the museum had been reduced by half during 2013 – 2017, some risk management alarms should have been apparent when the fire brigade declined to give a fire safety certificate back in 2014.

Martin Dowle, Director Brazil, and Cristina Becker, Senior Manager for the Arts, British Council, visited the makeshift premises of the museum a few weeks after the fire. The Museum´s staff were wearing t-shirts with a slogan declaring ´The Museum is Alive´ and they were already busily campaigning, alongside the public, to fight for improved resources and commitments from the federal government to rebuild the museum and save the artefacts from the ashes. Professor Kellner expressed his commitment and determination to rebuild the collection from scratch, despite the extensive losses caused by the fire.

‘The Museum is Alive’

For many of the citizens of Rio, the National Museum has been out of sight and out of mind. It is situated on grounds within a large park, near to the Maracanã football stadium, in the north of the city. The museum was rarely visited by middle class families from the affluent west and south zones of the city. But it was truly a treasure for less privileged families from the local suburbs, whose children could learn about botany, natural history and other topics, due to the breadth of the collection.

The museum also holds a significant research centre, employing more than 100 postgraduate researchers. The collection actually falls under the responsibility of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, not the National Institute of Museums in Brazil.

The response of the research community in the UK has been fantastic; in February, the British Council funded an event held by the Royal Anthropological Society in London to consider the possible future of the museum and its reconstruction. Since then it has also introduced a programme for the National Museum to help with restoration of the artefacts that could be saved from the ashes and to provide UK-based technical assistance to the institution.

A forthcoming museums conference in Brazil, being hosted with the support of the British Council, will have the somewhat grim title, ´Heritage on fire: who´s next?´

Shortly after the fire, a survey of the heritage sector across Brazil revealed that 38 other museums were also in a similarly precarious and vulnerable position. It is a sadly ironic legacy of this incident that [QUOTE] a forthcoming museums conference in Brazil, being hosted with the support of the British Council, will have the somewhat grim title, ´Heritage on fire: who´s next?´

This conference will be one of the key driving forces to lead a new three-year project that the British Council will begin in 2019/20, which will boldly tackle the questions of how we can influence and improve risk management and general management, especially for a new generation of museum managers, across the heritage sector. Our objective will be to train 350 professionals in the sector, in the new financial year, and more than 1,000 throughout the lifetime of this project, to improve their skills and their networks.

Sadly, museum fires in Brazil are not uncommon; infamous fires have also occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio during the 1970s, and the Museum of the Portuguese Language in 2014. In each example the public outcry at the devastation has still not inspired sufficient positive action from the sector to ensure that this cannot happen again. It is hoped that, this time, while resourcing is unfortunately still unlikely to improve, by inspiring increased awareness and understanding of how to better manage risk and improve management, it might be possible to help in the battle to ensure similar catastrophes cannot happen in the future, as they are so devastating to historical legacy and all the people who value it.  

Constance Witham, with thanks to Martin Dowle, Country Director Brazil, British Council

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