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Brazil: A museum is gone and might never return
Mércio Gomes is a Brazilian anthropologist living in Rio de Janeiro. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
A mixture of deep sorrow, anger and resentment has swept Brazilians across the country -- particularly in the city of Rio de Janeiro -- with the burning of their beloved Museu Nacional, or National Museum.
The fire started at about 7:30 Sunday evening, local time. It went on until the early hours of Monday, when firemen on their Magirus ladders sent enough water gushing out into what seemed to be a sacrificial bonfire to control the last of the flames.
By Monday morning, when I visited the site, the firemen were busy trying to enter the huge, early 19th-century neoclassical building to start gauging the extent of the destruction. For all we know, everything may have been burned to ashes.
Looking out over the building, its outer walls, though marked with ash, seem as tall and imposing as ever. But images from inside the museum show that the windows are all smashed, and the inner walls look practically carbonized. Thick volumes of charred wood, ash and debris -- from the collapsed roofs and burnt artifacts -- still smoldered on the floor, a horrifying testimony to the utter destruction of the museum.
Throughout the night, millions of Brazilians were glued to the news, mesmerized in horror and dismay as they watched the destruction of, perhaps, the most impressive colonial-era building Brazil has been able to maintain.
But then, as if searching for something less distressing to say, some of the museum's researchers and clerks roamed about in front of the building giving interviews to the press and revealing what they'd been able to save from the exhibition rooms and annexes before the fire moved in -- deep drawers filled with sheets of pressed flowers and leaves, a few small meteorites and, thank God, the library of one of the departments that was left unscathed. Oh yes, and no one -- not even the four security guards who witnessed the beginning of the fire -- has been reported injured.
This morning, I watched a crowd of students visit the museum, eager to enter as if to throw themselves into the ashes. After skirmishes with the police, the protesters stood outside the building shouting angry slogans and criticizing the federal government and the current administration. They demanded punitive action against those responsible for what they see as disgraceful political and administrative neglect.
Nobody yet knows the cause of the fire, but it is officials' irresponsibility, funding shortages in particular, which is being blamed for this tragedy.
Everyone has their preferred culprit in this national disgrace. With Brazil just weeks away from a general election, this mood of mutual accusation has, to use an ironic metaphor, flooded the nation like a tsunami.
It's not only politicians, the federal government, the Ministry of Culture or administrators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (which the museum is tied to) -- virtually everyone is to blame. And everyone feels part of the larger cultural mechanism that has produced an attitude of carelessness and a basic incapability to keep an institution like the National Museum in a state of good repair.
We Brazilians have lost much of the material memory of our short past. A good part of our 518 years of history -- or that which had been transformed into storable objects and could be seen by all -- disappeared in just a few hours.
Perhaps we can, in a decade or so, reconstruct the museum and reconstitute part of its collections of scientific objects, memorabilia and curios to once again entertain the children who flocked to see them. It is, after all, the children of Rio de Janeiro and other cities around it who are the ones to suffer the most for this loss.
The people of Rio de Janeiro were fond of taking their sons and daughters, grandchildren or a pack of nephews and nieces to the museum to show off their knowledge of odd-looking mummies brought in from Egypt by the Emperor Dom Pedro II, a huge skeleton of a humpback whale looking like a ribbed torpedo, or the brightly iridescent green and yellow feathers of a Kayapo headdress.
Never to be seen again are, perhaps, those old funeral urns unearthed from the island of Marajó at the mouth of the Amazon River, or the museum's collection of arachnids and insects stored in funny-shaped, smudged glass containers.
When I think that I can no longer take my youngest daughter or grandson to the Museu Nacional -- that is what gets me emotional. It is this sorrow that has penetrated our souls and may leave Brazilians feeling empty and forlorn for a long time to come.