The blaze at the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro began at about 7.30pm local time and raged into the night. There were no reports of injuries, but senior staff have described the loss to Brazilian science, history and culture as incalculable.
By Monday morning, the flames had been extinguished, leaving museum directors to survey the smouldering ruins of Brazils heritage. Although they were initially wary of calculating losses, the gutted building suggests the toll will be immense.
As the day progressed, ever more people tried to enter the park in which the building is housed to get a glimpse of its burned husk, and police eventually opened the gates.
At one point, officers in riot gear fired teargas into a small, angry crowd of protesters who had gathered outside the park’s entrance.
The museum was home to Egyptian and Graeco-Roman artefacts, fossils, dinosaurs and 12,000-year-old Luzia-the oldest human skeleton in the Americas.
But perhaps the greatest blow is the likely destruction of indigenous artefacts, which showed how millions of people lived in pre-colonial times.
Mércio Gomes, an anthropologist and a former president of Brazils indigenous agency, Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai), compared the loss to the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48BC.
‘We Brazilians have only 500 years of history. Our National Museum was 200 years old. Our memory is small, but that’s what we had, and it is lost for ever’, he wrote on Facebook. 'We have to reconstruct our National Museum’.
Brazil’s culture minister, Sérgio Leitão, told the Estado de S Paulo newspaper that the blaze was likely caused by either an electrical short-circuit or a homemade, paper hot-air balloon that may have landed on the roof.
While the cause of the blaze is still under investigation, government cuts and inadequate fire protection systems have been cited as key factors. Rios fire chief, Roberto Robaday, tsaid the two hydrants nearest the museum were dry, delaying efforts to douse the flames.