A massive fire that engulfed Brazil’s National Museum Sunday night has left staff and officials fearful that many of the nation’s most precious artifacts have been lost forever.
The museum housed 20 million items, including objects that tell the story of Brazil’s past: the first fossil discovered there, the oldest female skull found in the Americas and the nation’s largest meteorite.
First built in 1818 as a residence for Portugal’s royal family, the edifice also contained insects, mummies, paintings and dinosaur bones.
It had priceless items from ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy, and served as a prominent research institution.
Brazilian President Michel Temer called the damage an “incalculable” loss for the country. “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost,” he said in a tweet Sunday. “It’s a sad day for all Brazilians.”
The fire broke out around 7:30 p.m., after the museum shut its doors to the public, according to a statement from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which manages the museum.
It spread with astonishing speed, demolishing wood, documents and other flammable materials in its wake. Some flames towered over the museum, illuminating the night sky.
Firefighters were slow to fight the blaze because two hydrants near the museum weren’t working, a fire official told media. They had to use water from a nearby lake.
It is not immediately clear what caused the fire or what the extent of the damage is. The fire department said they were able to save some objects from the burning building.
No injuries were reported according to the statement.
People gathered outside the grounds on Monday to stare at the charred structure and its remains, crying and criticizing.
Staff say the museum was chronically underfunded. Vice director Luiz Duarte told O Globo, “We have never had efficient and urgent support.”
He also said the museum had been guaranteed about $5 million from the Brazilian government’s development bank, with some money allocated for fire prevention.
The staff had just gone through fire training and arranged for flammable items, such as animals kept in bottles with alcohol and formaldehyde, to be removed from the building. “The most terrible irony,” Duarte reportedly said.
He also told the newspaper that the fire destroyed frescoes of Pompeii, language collections and the entire collection of the Empress Tereza Cristina, who was nicknamed “the Mother of the Brazilians.”
The fire comes before elections in October, and as the country’s economy is suffering.
“It’s an international catastrophe. It goes beyond ‘a sad day,'” Brent Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told NPR. “Everyone in the museum community has to get behind our colleagues in Brazil and see what we could do to help them.”