Commentary Magazine

A Great Museum Dies

AP Photo/Leo Correa

An enormous cultural tragedy unfolded Sunday night when Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was gutted by fire and largely destroyed. Its priceless collections ranged from paintings and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, to anthropological collections and mineral specimens. The gallery housed one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. It was also home to a 470,000-volume scientific library, one of the largest in Brazil. Much of it was lost.

Happily, no one was injured. It is, however, thought that no more than 10 percent of the 20 million items in the collection were spared. Fortunately, one of them is the Bendegó meteorite, a nearly six-ton iron meteorite that was found in 1784.

What could have caused this catastrophe? The answer, simply, is borderline criminal neglect by the government. To be sure, Brazil has been engulfed now for several years in both recession and a financial corruption scandal that makes Tea Pot Dome look like penny-ante. One president has been impeached and removed; another is in jail. The museum budget has been cut time and again until there was not enough to even maintain the building, which featured peeling paint, exposed electrical wiring, and plumbing leaks. But the maintenance budget of the museum was only 520,000 reals, not even a rounding error in a total federal budget that is well north of a trillion reals.

There was no fire suppression (i.e., sprinkler) system in place, nor, apparently, smoke alarms. Only four guards were on duty in the vast building. When the fire department arrived, the two nearest hydrants had no water, and it had to be trucked in from a nearby lake.

Just further proof, as if any were needed, that governments should not be allowed to run anything they do not absolutely have to run.

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