Recriminations fly after fire devastates Brazilian museum

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Smoke rose from the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum as recriminations flew over who was responsible for a huge fire that destroyed part of Latin America’s largest collection of historical artefacts and documents.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the museum gates and tried several times to push into the site, demanding to see the damage and calling on the government to rebuild.

Police held the crowd back with pepper spray, tear gas and batons.

Police confront protesting students and National Museum personnel
Police confront protesting students and National Museum personnel (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

The main building, once the home of the Brazilian royal family, housed a collection of 20 million items that included Egyptian and Greco-Roman relics and the oldest human skull found in the Western hemisphere, known as Luzia.

On Monday, the building was still standing, but much of it appeared to have been gutted. Civil defence authorities warned that the structure was not safe to enter because the roof and internal walls had been compromised and could collapse further.

It was not clear how the fire began on Sunday evening, when the museum was closed, but the flames quickly fuelled criticism of Brazil’s dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits as the nation prepares for national elections in October.

Several officials said the building was known to be in serious disrepair and at significant risk of catching fire.

Damage to the National Museum
Damage to the National Museum (Mario Lobao/AP)

The museum has suffered underfunding for years that prevented renovations and forced it to close exhibits. The Folha de S Paulo newspaper reported in May, as the museum was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, that its annual budget had fallen from around £100,000 in 2013 to around £65,000 last year.

In a sign of how strapped the museum was, when a termite infestation last year forced the closure of a room containing a 39ft dinosaur skeleton, officials turned to crowdfunding to raise the money to reopen the room.

The institution had recently secured approval for a renovation, including an upgrade of the fire-prevention system, Mr Kellner said.

“Look at the irony. The money is now there, but we ran out of time,” he said.

Protesters outside the museum
Protesters outside the museum (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

“The money spent on each one of those stadiums — a quarter of that would have been enough to make this museum safe and resplendent,” he told Brazilian TV. He said the responsibility for the museum’s destruction lay squarely with federal authorities.

President Michel Temer announced that private and public banks, as well as mining giant Vale and state-run oil company Petrobras, had agreed to help rebuild the museum and reconstitute its collections.

Michel Temer
Michel Temer (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Mr Kellner said there were fire extinguishers on the site, but it was not clear if there were sprinklers, which are problematic for museums because water can damage objects.

Employees had recently received training from firefighters in how to respond to a blaze in the building, Mr Duarte said, but no one was on hand Sunday night to put that training into practice.

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