The battle to rebuild centuries of science after an epic inferno

Nearly a year after flames consumed Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, researchers are struggling to revive their work and resume their lives. (Assignment published in Nature. Article by Emiliano Rogriguez Mega. Photography by Maria Magdalena Arréllaga.)

Article published in Nature vol. 571 on 18 July 2019. Available here.

Astronomer Maria Elizabeth Zucolotto stands by the Bendegó meteorite that survived the fire.

Astronomer Maria Elizabeth Zucolotto stands by the Bendegó meteorite that survived the fire.

The fire had already chewed up the front half of Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro by the time zoologist Paulo Buckup drove up. The blaze was surging into the rest of the museum as firefighters stood by looking helpless. “Then I realized why,” says Buckup. “They had no water.” The two hydrants next to the museum were dry, and engines had to race to a nearby lake to fill up. Buckup knew that the museum’s precious collections wouldn’t last long.

On the night of 2 September 2018, he and around 40 other scientists, administrators and volunteers checked their fear and broke into the burning building — forming human chains to rescue specimens, computers, freezers and microscopes.

Inside, the museum felt surreal. The only light in the building came from the progressing fire. Buckup rushed through the dark hallways into the inner courtyard, where a lone firefighter tried in vain to extinguish the flames consuming the top floors. The courtyard echoed with loud cracks, and shards of glass rained down, while “a tornado of smoke” erupted out of some interior windows.

Buckup didn’t know it yet, but he was witnessing the biggest scientific tragedy ever recorded in Brazil. Soon, hundreds of years of natural history would turn to ash — including much of the nation’s most prized records of its past. The fire claimed tens of thousands of the museum’s 20 million fossils, animal specimens, mummies and Indigenous artefacts, including recordings of chants in native languages that are no longer spoken. More than two-thirds of the 90 resident researchers lost all of their work and belongings (…)

Brazilian researchers are no strangers to this type of misfortune. Fires have consumed at least four other science museums and research centres there over the past ten years; and scientists worry that other natural-history collections are also at risk — thanks to a combination of ageing buildings and budget cuts that have put off essential renovations for years.

Many had warned that a similar fate would befall the National Museum, which was established in 1818. “The museum in Rio was a matchbox,” says population geneticist Kelly Zamudio at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who grew up in São Paulo and typically travels to collections around Brazil for her research. “It was just waiting to happen.”

Maria Elizabeth Zucolotto and zoologist Paulo Buckup survey the destruction at the museum, where scientists and students have been participating in recovery efforts since the night of the fire to rescue any fragments of specimens from the rubble.

Maria Elizabeth Zucolotto and zoologist Paulo Buckup survey the destruction at the museum, where scientists and students have been participating in recovery efforts since the night of the fire to rescue any fragments of specimens from the rubble.

Zoologist Paulo Buckup and Alexandre Pimenta look at singed description labels saved on the night of the fire.

Zoologist Paulo Buckup and Alexandre Pimenta look at singed description labels saved on the night of the fire.

Several cabinets containing holotype collections equivalent to more than 40 years of work were saved from the fire. “We knew immediately that these were the cabinets to rescue first,” says Buckup.

Several cabinets containing holotype collections equivalent to more than 40 years of work were saved from the fire. “We knew immediately that these were the cabinets to rescue first,” says Buckup.

Graduate student volunteers sift through rubble from inside the museum. Students were eager to offer help after the fire, so a formal course was created to facilitate student support in the recovery effort in the months following the fire.

Graduate student volunteers sift through rubble from inside the museum. Students were eager to offer help after the fire, so a formal course was created to facilitate student support in the recovery effort in the months following the fire.

Zoologist Claudio José Fernandes, pauses to observe the Museum. "My father would bring me here when I was a kid", he says, "what was lost is irreplaceable".

Zoologist Claudio José Fernandes, pauses to observe the Museum. "My father would bring me here when I was a kid", he says, "what was lost is irreplaceable".

Elizabeth Zucolotto plays with her dog, Fumaça, in Quinta da Boa Vista Park, in front of the Museum. Fumaça appeared during the fire, she says, "he became the Museum's mascot".

Elizabeth Zucolotto plays with her dog, Fumaça, in Quinta da Boa Vista Park, in front of the Museum. Fumaça appeared during the fire, she says, "he became the Museum's mascot".

Located in the Park Quinta da Boa Vista, the museum was an intergenerational community space often visited by families and schools. There is currently no reopening date for the museum.

Located in the Park Quinta da Boa Vista, the museum was an intergenerational community space often visited by families and schools. There is currently no reopening date for the museum.