The museum fire has been described as a result of the meticulous dismantling of Brazilian society by a government in the pocket of multinational conglomerates.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Since the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro was reduced to ashes by a fire that broke out Sunday night, the country has been in the grips of not only grief but a powerful collective sense of outrage over their loss of the 200-year-old museum. The anger has manifested itself in major mass mobilizations, heaping further pressure and disrepute on the right-wing, neoliberal government of President Michel Temer that had gutted public spending to an unparalleled extent.
Rio’s National Museum had at one time been the royal palace of the once-ruling monarchy of the country, and had since become Latin America’s largest museum. It was home to the largest collection of Egyptian mummies in the hemisphere, as well as priceless pieces of art, painstakingly reconstructed dinosaur skeletons, and the fossilized remains of the oldest woman in the Americas. The museum also had a collection of 20 million artifacts in fields like archeology, botany, geology, paleontology and zoology.
Former environmental minister, and candidate in the upcoming October presidential elections, Marina Silva likened the tragedy to a “lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.”
The facility had already been long subject to neglect by the past several administrations presiding over Brazil, according to critics. Since seizing power in August 2016 through a parliamentary coup that toppled former President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) administration, the government of President Michel Temer has implemented a fierce austerity regime that has seen Brazil undergo huge cuts to social programs, labor protections, science and education.
“Given the financial straits of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and all the other public universities … this was a tragedy that could be seen coming,” Silva noted.
In a testament to the carelessness of the Temer administration in regards to national projects, the museum had received only $25,000 from his government – a shockingly low sum that forced faculty at the University of Rio de Janeiro to turn to crowdfunding sites in order to hold exhibitions. Some critics have accused the government of diverting funds that had been meant to restore and renovate the museum.
When the fire finally broke out, the sprinkler system barely spit out a drop while firefighters desperate to quell the blaze found that the fire hydrants were dry – forcing trucks to seek water at a nearby lake. By the time the fire had finally subsided, most of the collection had been destroyed. Only 10 percent of the collection is expected to be recovered, according to museum staff.
The fire has been seen as a result of the meticulous dismantling of Brazilian society by a government in the pocket of multinational conglomerates and little interest in the long-term interests of the country’s people.
Demonstrators flood the streets
Thousands of protesters took to the streets as details about the event drew a clear line of causality between neoliberal policies and the inexorable force of the fire. From the afternoon until early morning, demonstrators – mostly university students and groups affiliated with the country’s vibrant leftist and trade-union movements – voiced their indignation at not only the failure to finance the museum but the broader disdain shown toward Brazil’s future as a viable national project where justice is done toward the educational needs of the country’s youth.
An anthropology student, who identified himself as Caio and studied at the museum, told AFP:
This fire was caused due to several years of neglect from the federal government … The anthropology department went through absurd budget cuts from the federal government during the past two years. In my class alone, it was around 70 percent.”
Yet while the lion’s share of anger is being directed toward Temer, former President Rousseff has also been accused of squandering funds on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“The money spent on each one of those stadiums — a quarter of that would have been enough to make this museum safe and resplendent,” museum deputy director Luiz Fernando Dias told Brazilian media, noting that the museum’s cries for renovation funds in 2013 went unheard by Rousseff.
The party she and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had built had largely shifted to the right over the course of their two administrations, leading to a loss of voter confidence and a weakening of their base that eventually led to Rousseff’s legislative overthrow.
The upcoming elections will be a test that will pit a divided PT – which has been on the back foot since Lula was barred from running for election last week and is now expected to unite behind the relatively obscure former Sao Paolo mayor, Fernando Haddad — against a still-ascendant right-wing led by presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro, who has used violently anti-immigrant, racist language and appeals to the country’s past “successes” under military dictatorships to solidify a hard-right base.
The museum fire’s timing comes amid the disintegration of the traditional left and the consolidation of an utterly venal and aggressively anti-democratic right wing.
Mired in recession and having now lost its priceless national heritage, Brazil is at a turning point that could see further cataclysmic events take place in the near future.
Feature Photo | A man watches as flames engulf the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018. According to its website, the museum has thousands of items related to the history of Brazil and other countries. The museum is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Leo Correa | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.