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Brazil museum’s incalculable losses spark outrage

Brazil's National Museum once held thousands of years of heritage. Now all that's left of Latin America's largest natural history museum, once home to 20 million artifacts, is smoldering debris. Nick Schifrin reports how the tragedy has also drawn anger at the government.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The raging fire that on Sunday night consumed the National Museum in Rio, home to 20 million artifacts, has led to a profound national mourning in Brazil.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, the loss of Latin America's largest collection of priceless treasures also sparked anger and recriminations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All that's left the Latin America's largest natural history museum is smoldering debris. The burned-out shell of Rio de Janeiro'S National Museum once held thousands of years of the region's and country's heritage.

    Today, the losses are irreplaceable and incalculable, and a country is in shock. A student sat in the burned museum shadow, having lost his entire master's degree work.

    The historian Regina Dantas looked into a building where she'd worked for 30 years.

  • Regina Dantas (through translator):

    It seems like a nightmare. I went to sleep thinking it was a nightmare, that I was going to wake up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She couldn't continue. She called the collection unrecoverable.

    The blaze started Sunday night and engulfed the museum. Eighty firefighters battled for six hours, but nearby hydrants didn't work, and they failed to save a building where Brazil signed its independence from Portugal in 1822, and that was once home to Brazil's royal family.

  • Isabelle Ramalho (through translator):

    I just saw a piece of my history, the house of the Brazilian empire on fire, becoming destroyed. I see the history of my country becoming ashes. It has no price. I'm devastated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Inside these walls were millions of artifacts, as seen in the old museum handout video, Latin America's preeminent collection of Egyptian mummies, including one from 750 B.C., and a statute from 1500 B.C., countless American indigenous artifacts, from masks to a 1200-year-old funeral urn, the dinosaur maxakalisaurus, whose excavation took 10 years, and 12,000-year-old Luzia, the oldest human remains found in the Americas, whose discovery challenged the basic understanding of how and when humans migrated.

    Today, museum workers managed to save some items, providing hope that more could be salvaged. And one of the world's largest meteorites, on display since 1888, survived. But the fire's aftermath matched the national mood, a symbol not only of sorrow, but also dissent.

    Thousands of residents stormed the museum gate. Police used pepper spray to keep them back. They marched through the streets and accused the government of negligence and losing countless royal artifacts, including for the family of Joao De Orleans and Braganca.

    Dom Joao De Orleans and Braganca (through translator): It could have been avoided with a minimum cost, especially compared with the money thrown out by the Brazilian administration. Are there guilty people? Of course there are guilty people. And they must be punished.

  • Paulo Sotero:

    This is symbolic of lots of problems Brazil is facing right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paulo Sotero directs the Wilson Center's Brazil Institute and says the fire is a metaphor for a public sector that's failing to deliver.

  • Paulo Sotero:

    People are angry for a variety of reasons in Brazil, including the state of the economy, the state of corruption and crime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Just a few years ago, the country was hopeful and construction was booming. Rio hosted the Olympics and created big new plazas, fancy new apartment buildings with beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean, and expanded public transit with new buses and trams.

    But today in Rio, violence has increased so much, the local government dispatched the military to secure massive slums, and masked, heavily armed policeman conduct operations. And corruption charges plague the highest office. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is in prison. Former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. And current President Michel Temer stands accused not only of corruption, but also failing to fix core issues.

  • Paulo Sotero:

    The country got itself into an illusion that it didn't need to address its fundamental, basic problems of economic management, of fiscal management to confront those issues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the museum failed to address its own deficiencies. According to local reports, it had no sprinklers, no fire doors, no smoke detectors.

    The government must do more, said museum director Alexander Kellner.

  • Alexander Kellner (through translator):

    It's necessary for all the authorities that have the resources, specifically the federal government, to help the National Museum put its history back together. We have already lost part of our collection. Brazil can't lose its history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, it's that history that Brazil feels it lost. A Brazilian mother posted photos of her son thrilled and in awe during his last visit to the museum. Today, that museum is largely gutted.

    It's a reminder, as the British Library put it today, how our shared global heritage is precious and fragile.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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