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In museum's ashes, Brazilians see 'tragic metaphor' of country's crises

Why We Wrote This

The fire at Brazil’s National Museum would be a severe loss to science and art at any time. But today, many Brazilians look at the rubble and see a painful symbol of corruption and austerity.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
An aerial view shows the National Museum of Brazil Sept. 3 after it was destroyed by fire in Rio de Janeiro.

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At the turn of the 21st century, Brazil was Latin America’s rising star. Its economy was soaring, its middle class was growing, and its international role was gaining heft. But over the past several years, the nation has stumbled. Brazil moved into an economic recession and implemented strict austerity measures. A sitting president was impeached and a former president imprisoned. The massive “Car Wash” investigation, meanwhile, revealed that political elite were siphoning off billions of dollars. So when Brazil’s National Museum caught fire on Sunday, destroying up to 90 percent of its collection, many felt the country’s realities had been thrown into sharp relief. Experts had warned the museum was at risk, but years on end brought more budget cuts. But if the fire is a warning, will the government heed it? “My greatest fear is that this isn’t a wake-up call, but an affirmation in a country where the past doesn’t seem to matter very much and confidence in the government and institutions is very low,” says Thomas Trebat, director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Rio de Janeiro.

As a girl, Cecília Pereira’s family made a habit of picnics at the National Museum. Formerly a palace for Portuguese and Brazilian royalty, the majestic museum-grounds were a reprieve from the poor Rio neighborhood where Ms. Pereira grew up, just 15 minutes away.

“I always wanted to go,” says Pereira, now a master’s candidate studying botany. She finally entered the museum as an undergraduate, blown away by displays like the bones of a giant, prehistoric sloth, or the five-ton meteorite that greeted visitors in the main entrance.

On Sunday, the National Museum burned fiercely enough to obliterate up to 90 percent of its contents – including ancient Egyptian mummies, rare indigenous artwork, and the 11,500-year-old “Luzia,” the oldest human skeleton discovered in the Americas.

Pereira says she can’t find the words to describe her – and the country’s – loss.

What sparked the museum blaze is still unknown. But the initial, emotional outcry, followed by a sinking acceptance of the tragedy, underscores the dramatic dive Brazil has taken over the past several years, from up-and-coming to mired in corruption and scandal.

At the turn of the 21st century, Brazil was Latin America's rising star. Its economy was soaring, its middle class growing, and its international presence gaining more heft. It was investing more heavily in education than almost any other OECD, or industrialized, country. Long gone, it seemed, were the days of extreme income inequality and a harsh right-wing dictatorship: Brazil was modernizing and leaving its past behind.

But over the past five or so years, the nation started to stumble, moving into an economic recession and implementing austerity measures that hit the poor and middle classes hardest. The political elite, meanwhile, were skimming billions of dollars into their pockets. This week, the blaze that engulfed Rio’s natural history museum, charring thousands of years of history and culture, threw Brazil’s political and economic realities into stark relief. The disaster has left Brazilians wondering whether the country will see the fire as a wake-up call, or watch as more institutions and national gains suffer amid widespread corruption and political paralysis.

Alexandre Macieira/Riotur/AP
This undated handout photo provided shows Indigenous decorated pottery from South America on display at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might be lost.

“My greatest fear is that this isn’t a wake-up call, but an affirmation in a country where the past doesn’t seem to matter very much and confidence in the government and institutions is very low,” says Thomas Trebat, director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Rio de Janeiro.

“There’s a sense that Brazil should be one of the great countries in the world,” Mr. Trebat says. But, instead, people feel “we’ve fallen behind,” and are questioning their power to do anything about it.

Recession roller coaster

Experts have been warning that the National Museum was a fire risk for over a decade. But its budget kept slipping amid austerity policies meant to speed economic recovery: from roughly $130,000 in 2013, to about $84,000 in 2017. In the first few months of 2018, it had reportedly received only $13,000. Many say a sprinkler system is one investment that could have helped slow the reach of the fire.

“We thought that there might be a problem, that it could have caught fire at any moment, but we also couldn’t stop working,” says Thaiana Garcia, who researched crustaceans in a museum lab.

For Ms. Garcia, the lack of investment isn’t just about the recession. “The government places a higher value on science from elsewhere, rather than what we produce here in Brazil,” she says. “The first money they take away is the money for universities and museums.”

Brazil has been on a roller coaster of political and economic crises over the past several years, with the impeachment of a sitting president and the imprisonment of a former one. Large-scale anti-corruption protests swept the nation in 2013, and the economy officially entered a historic recession the following year. Unemployment hit about 14 percent last year, according to government data. Hope that the temporary administration of President Michel Temer could put Brazil back on its feet economically has fizzled out.

High-profile corruption scandals have swept the nation – and reached out to implicate leaders across Latin America. Now in its fifth year, the sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation has shaken the nation, uncovering a series of kickbacks through which politicians siphoned off billions of dollars. Last May, Brazilians gaped as they listened to leaked audio recordings of President Temer appear to endorse meatpacking giant JBS to continue bribes to senior politicians. Last September, a former minister was arrested after his fingerprints were found on bags with more than $16 million in cash – enough to fund the museum for more than a century, based on recent years’ budgets.

“People are tired of corruption,” says Maurício Canêdo, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s economics school. “But people are also tired of poorly used public resources, whether that's related to corruption or simply to spending priorities that are different to what they believe they should be."

Science on a shoestring

None of the scandals are directly linked to the museum’s funding. But all the same, for many scientists, the constant swirl of corruption stands in painful contrast to their institutions’ drastic budget cuts. Academics and researchers panicked last year when funding for science and technology research was gutted by 44 percent. It had already been slashed by more than half over the previous five years. Last month, the body in charge of Brazil’s academic research said it would be forced to cut 200,000 research grants if it didn’t receive further funding, threatening a knock-on effect for key economic sectors, like agriculture.

“The fire is a tragic metaphor for what the Temer government represents in Brazil,” says Waldeck Carneiro, a Rio de Janeiro state representative for the country’s main opposition, the Workers Party (PT).

Sixty-two percent of young Brazilians would leave the country if given the opportunity, according to a recent Datafolha poll.

Despite finally emerging from recession, Brazil’s growth is predicted to remain sluggish, and austerity attitudes may not change anytime soon. “If there’s no money, well, patience,” right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro, a frontrunner in next month’s presidential election, told Brazilian media when asked about reallocating funding to prevent similar disasters.

The fire exposed Brazil as a nation that “doesn’t value its past, isn’t proud of its past and doesn’t look to figures of the past for inspiration and guidance,” says Trebat, pointing to residual effects of colonialism. “Maybe that’s a good thing in some respects, but it points to a general lack of self-esteem and confidence in what the country has been and what it could be.”

Looking ahead

Many are putting their hopes into next month’s presidential election. However, nearly 40 percent of the electorate support imprisoned former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula,” who has been ruled ineligible to run – suggesting that, even if a replacement candidate is provided, the vote may not be the salve they are craving.

“If you’re always having to start over, which is the situation people constantly find themselves in [in Brazil], you aren’t going to get anywhere,” Trebat says.

But those who love the National Museum aren’t ready to give up hope. The outcry from the international academic community, along with colleagues’ solidarity, has given Pereira a sense that all is not lost.

The cause of the fire is under investigation and there are calls to rebuild the museum – though with so much of the collection gone, many say it can never be truly restored.

“We are in mourning for the loss of history, [but] I hope this will mean more effort to better protect national heritage,” she says. “The museum didn’t die. It resists, it endures.”

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