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National Museum of Brazil Disaster: What did we learn and what should we do differently?

Posted by , on 3 October 2018


On the Sunday night of 2nd September of 2018, one month ago, most Brazilians were watching TV shows while a large part of our national story was burning out in the National Museum’s fire. In a few hours, a 200-year old institution and several biological, anthropological, and geological collections were consumed by the fire. Publications have been written in respectable journals and newspapers about the fact and its consequences for the whole of society (

In this post, I would like to provide a brief personal view from a Brazilian Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Evo-Devo) researcher who also acts as the Director of one of UFRJ’s Institutes. Our Institute also hosts important scientific collections (, which could be or might be affected in the future if we do not improve our administrative practices.

First, as a Brazilian Evo-Devo researcher, the loss of holotype specimens from some of the most extensive invertebrate collections worldwide will not be recovered sooner or later. Some of the specimens collected by famous naturalists – such as one the Darwin´s greatest colleagues, the German Naturalist Fritz Muller – are of special interest for Evo-Devo researchers (
), since it has been argued that many evolutionary secrets and different morphotypes might lie in the unexplored museums of the world. Unfortunately, in this situation we cannot come back and retrieve the samples and a part of Latin American Biodiversity is gone forever.

Although the reason for the fire is a case for the specialists, I would like to point out some issues which do not apply only for the National Museum of Brazil, but also for other public institutions. After the fire, some authorities and some of the public opinion of the country tried to put the responsibility onto our Rector, who has only been ahead UFRJ for three years and has been trying to obtain special funding to make the required changes in this historical building. This led to a strong response of our employees and students supporting our Rector and our democratic institution, our Federal University and the Museum, the first research institute in Brazil.

If you are a researcher from a developed country, you can´t imagine how much paperwork a Professor or a Director in a country like Brazil has to deal with to buy a simple equipment, or to develop a fire alarm system. The paperwork to hire a company or to develop such a project in Brazil impairs our scientific progress. This can be justified by the lack of qualified personal from the university, and our current low budget to hire a specialized company. In the past years, federal research money for Science has dropped over 60% and the Science and Technology Ministry has been largely neglected by the government.

To solve daily problems of infrastructure one must undergo a complex paperwork process which can take years and contain over a thousand pages and, at the end, the company might still not be hired due to lack of funding. Unfortunately, the corruption scandals in the past years led to a general impression that corruption is widespread all over the country. I can assure that most, if not all, professors and colleagues from my University are honest and, in many occasions, buy consumables for the university from their own salaries, to avoid undergoing this stressful and many times unsuccessful process of buying something using University money.

A second possibility, the donation of private money, rarely occurs. In general, wealthy people from Brazil do not donate to Universities or research institutes, as it is typical for US Universities. This situation is already changing with some great initiatives such as the Serrapilheira Institute (, although the whole donation system is still in its infancy. Current Brazilian laws limit the use of the money that the University obtains from rents, museum tickets, donations, and any other source of funding. Money allocated in one year does not stay for the next year: it goes back to the Federal Government. Any money that enters in the University must undergo the same complex process that avoid any reasonable speed and progress that science needs. Thus, laws must change for science and technology improvement in Brazil.

Thus, although the museum tragedy cannot be solely attributed to lack of public funding and extensive inefficacy of paperwork and unreasonable laws to spend public resources by the University, these issues have contributed for the tragedy. Lastly, I believe that researchers from public universities have undermined the role and the importance of museums and collections for the Universities. I often see comments that museums are just repository of specimens, but particularly in the case of the National Museum a large part of Zoological, Anthropological, Paleontological research of our country was being carried out in this historical building. Importantly, immediately after the fire, the community of National´s Museum has risen together, and the collections are being restarted by the researchers and students.

The National Museum is ALIVE and I hope from now on, the Museum acquires the status it should never have lost, the home of our history and our knowledge, which fortunately lies in our public universities.

Rodrigo Nunes da Fonseca is the Director of the Center for Ecology and Socio-Environmental Development of Macaé (NUPEM/UFRJ),

Affiliated Member of Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Latin American Media Officer of the Pan American Society of Evolutionary Developmental Biology

All opinion in this post can only be attributed to the author of the post.

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Categories: Events, Funding, News

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