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Brazil museum fire: Brazilians question who is at fault

Brazil’s National Museum housed a collection of 20 million historic items.

Recriminations are flying after fire tore through Brazil’s National Museum resulting in the loss of at least part of Latin America’s largest archive of historical artefacts, objects and documents.

The museum’s director said part of the collection was destroyed but that it was not possible yet to detail what was lost.

The museum had a collection of 20 million items — including Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts and the oldest human skull found in the Western hemisphere — and was once the home of the Portuguese royal family.

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Fire burns inside the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil (Leo Correa/AP)

It was not clear what was at the site when the building caught fire on Sunday night.

But the fire quickly led to criticism over dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits as Brazilians prepare to vote in national elections in October.

“Just crying doesn’t solve anything,” Alexander Kellner, the museum’s director, told reporters at the scene.

He became emotional as he listed the funds and support he said he would now demand from authorities to salvage what was left of the collection and rebuild the museum.

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(Twitter screenshot)

Mr Kellner said that the institution had recently secured approval for funds for a planned renovation of the museum, including an upgrade of the fire prevention system.

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

Roberto Robadey, a spokesman for the fire department, said firefighters got off to a slow start fighting the blaze because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not functioning. Instead, trucks had to be sent to get water from a nearby lake.

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

Asked by a reporter why such a disaster doesn’t happen at cultural institutions in other countries, Mr Kellner, replied: “Ask yourself that. That’s a good question, ask yourself that.”

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People watch as flames engulf the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil (Leo Correa/AP)

The building was still standing on Monday morning, but much of it appeared to have been gutted. A few hundred people, including some in tears, gathered at the gates of the site.

On the massive site where the museum sits, the fencing was dilapidated, stonework was cracked and lawns appeared untended.

“This fire is what Brazilian politicians are doing to the people,” said Rosana Hollanda, a 35-year-old high school teacher, who was crying at the gates of the museum on Monday. “They’re burning our history, and they’re burning our dreams.”

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Trágico incidente que destruiu um palácio marcante da nossa história. É um dever nacional reconstruí-lo das cinzas, recompor cada detalhe eternizado em pinturas e fotos e ainda que não seja o original continuará a ser para sempre a lembrança da família imperial que nos deu a independência, o império, a primeira constituição e a unidade nacional. ESCLARECIMENTO Na nota acima, o trecho "...reconstruí-lo das cinzas, recompor cada detalhe eternizado em pinturas e fotos e ainda que não seja o original..." refere-se ao prédio do Museu Nacional e não ao acervo, como pode ter sido interpretado equivocadamente por alguns. Itens de valores inestimáveis foram perdidos, como bem sabemos todos, e jamais poderão ser recuperados. O Palácio Imperial foi o que nos restou desta tragédia. Vamos tentar recuperá-lo sim, em apoio ao governo federal, para salvar, ao menos, esta obra arquitetônica de valor incomensurável para o Brasil.

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Roberto Leher, the rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, of which the museum is a part, told reporters that the building needed an upgrade to its electrical and water systems and a new fire prevention plan.

“We all knew the building was in a vulnerable state,” he told reporters. He added that officials had been working with firefighters to reduce those risks.

“A fire of this scale, the reality unfortunately showed this, we needed a systematic intervention,” he said.

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