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Fire Guts Brazil's National Museum In Rio De Janeiro


The world is mourning the loss of so many priceless treasures. They were destroyed in a fire that wrecked Brazil's national museum. That museum had the largest collection of artifacts in Latin America, some 20 million items amassed over centuries. Officials say they don't know yet exactly how much of this was lost. One estimate is as much as 90 percent. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the scene of this tragedy in Rio de Janeiro.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: I'm standing about 100 feet from the national museum. It's a big, beautiful palace. It's 200 years old. It's pale yellow. But if I look beyond the facade, which mostly seems intact, beyond the columns and wrought-iron balconies, through the windows, all I can see is wreckage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

REEVES: Hundreds of people are also here gazing through the windows at the wreckage. Many of them museum employees or research students who studied there. Some are weeping. The smoldering show before them was, until Sunday's fire, home to a huge and irreplaceable collection. It had so much, says professor Eliane Guedes.

ELIANE GUEDES: Archaeology, entomology, paleontology, minerals, rocks, bones from dinosaurs, everything.

REEVES: This is priceless.

GUEDES: Priceless, priceless.

REEVES: This museum enriched the lives of Brazilians for two centuries. It was Latin America's largest natural history museum. Yet it also had many other treasures, from paintings and ancient pottery to Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian artifacts, plus some of the oldest human skeletal remains ever discovered in the Americas. Guedes is in charge of the rock collection, including a giant meteorite. She's waiting to be allowed inside to see what can be salvaged.

GUEDES: Two hundred years is not two days, you know? So it's a long time, and we need to get something. Even if we get 1 percent, it's better than nothing.

REEVES: Inside, firefighters rummage through the ashes, looking to recover what they can. It's clear loss is a huge. Guedes again.

GUEDES: I'm so sorry because the next generation cannot see what I saw. I have two kids, and the museum was like a park for them. Usually we had schools visiting every day. Two hundred kids every day is walking around.

REEVES: Standing close by is professor Paulo Magno (ph). Magno is an entomologist. He travels Brazil collecting insects.

PAULO MAGNO: (Through interpreter) You go to the Amazon, risk your life with diseases and other situations, and you bring insects back to be researched.

REEVES: Magno says he spent his career doing this work.

MAGNO: (Through interpreter) And many other researchers have done the same, and that all turned into ashes.

REEVES: Authorities say they don't yet know what caused the blaze. Reports say officials were repeatedly warned that the building was in a badly dilapidated state and at risk of fire. It had no internal sprinklers.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).

REEVES: Many outside the museum blame a lack of government support. Brazil is struggling to emerge from its worst recession in history. The museum's federal funding dropped by about a third over the last few years.

FELIPE RAMA: Our politicians don't want to leave nothing to education and culture.

REEVES: That's Felipe Rama, an engineer.

RAMA: They just want to freeze the money that needs to be spent, and the result is there in...

REEVES: In front of this burnt-out museum.

RAMA: Yeah, yeah.

REEVES: Brazil's president, Michel Temer, says a group of banks and industrial conglomerates have agreed to fund the rebuilding of the museum. This doesn't impress biology student Joao Felipe Rocha (ph), one of the multitude of Brazilians mourning the loss of a national treasure.

JOAO FELIPE ROCHA: You can't rebuild the museum. The museum was 20 million of unique artifacts. It's not something that you can buy from another museum.

REEVES: It's just too late, says Rocha.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEP MAPS' "BIOLOGIC TRUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.