ABOVE: The Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in 2013.

Early on the morning of June 15, a fire broke out in an annex of the Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Though quickly contained, storage rooms that housed portions of the museum’s 260,000 piece collection were affected. The cause of the fire is not known.

The museum, known as MHNJB, is part of the Federal University of Minas Gerais and is home to archeological artifacts (including human skeletons that are thousands of years old), archival documents, Brazilian folk art, plants, insect specimens, and more. Two of the affected rooms were severely damaged by smoke and soot, while others bore the flames’ brunt. Museum officials have not yet fully accounted for what was lost, although their statements have not been optimistic.

For the collection in...

For the collection in the damaged rooms, “little hope remains of material that can be recovered,” Mariana Lacerda, curator of the museum, tells Nature. “Something that is so slow to build was destroyed so quickly, in just over an hour.”

Mariana Cabral, the coordinator of the Specialized Center for Prehistoric Archeology at MHNJB, describes the event in a letter on the Federal University’s website. After being alerted of the fire by coworkers, Cabral writes that she arrived on the scene and watched, with dismay, at the firefighters hosing down the delicate collection, though she reports they said they were being careful. She also explains the guilt she felt, as an archeologist, that the human remains that had been carefully removed from their resting places for study had now been destroyed while in the museum’s care.

The fire comes less than two years after another fire, at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, wiped out nearly all of its 20 million-piece collection. In total, Nature reports, there have been six museum fires in Brazil since 2010, and researchers and conservationists are concerned about losing so much of the country’s collections. Fire-suppression systems are costly, and tight budgets have made it difficult for them to be installed and maintained correctly in many of Brazil’s museums.

See “Amid Science Cuts, Brazil’s National Museum Tries to Recover

Staff from the National Museum are now offering guidance on fire recovery to colleagues at MHNJB. “Unfortunately, we are now experts in this matter,” paleontologist Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum, tells Nature. “We went through it. We know the mistakes to avoid, we have a way to act, we have a methodology.”

National Museum officials announced this past September, one year after the blaze, that they planned on reopening to the public at some point in 2022. 

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?