‘Magical moment’ as fire-ravaged Brazil museum receives big fossil donation

Last Updated: June 18, 2024By

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Brazil’s National Museum: Rising from the Ashes


A Devastating Fire

Nearly six years ago, a terrible fire tore through Brazil’s national museum, wiping out a huge part of the country’s cultural heritage. On the night of September 2, 2018, an electrical short-circuit set the old imperial palace ablaze, reducing about 85% of the museum’s 20 million artifacts to ashes. This building, located in a park just north of Rio de Janeiro’s city center, had been home to the 200-year-old museum.

The fire destroyed many priceless items, including Egyptian and Greco-Roman relics collected by Brazil’s imperial family, a giant dinosaur named Dinoprata, and irreplaceable records of Indigenous life and culture from pre-colonial times.

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Rebuilding the Collection

Now, efforts are in full swing to rebuild the collection before the museum’s planned reopening in April 2026. Reconstruction work on St Christopher’s Palace began in 2021, and while the restored facade and front courtyard were unveiled a year later, much work remains on the rest of the building.

“It was a huge tragedy, but we need to look forward and rebuild. Brazil needs its national museum back,” said Alexander Kellner, the museum’s director. He was speaking to reporters on a Tuesday, celebrating a “magical moment” for the museum – a major donation of fossils.

A Significant Donation

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The museum recently received over a thousand fossils from Swiss-German collector Burkhard Pohl. This is the largest fossil donation the museum has received in recent memory and holds immense scientific importance. The 1,104 fossils all come from the Araripe Basin, an area in northeastern Brazil known for its Early Cretaceous period fossils. Among the donated items are two unique dinosaur fossils, a Tetrapodophis (possibly the earliest snake fossil), and two unstudied pterosaur skulls.

These fossils will not only be displayed in future exhibitions but will also aid in scientific research at the museum, which is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Global Collaboration

In a partnership between the museum and Pohl’s Swiss-based Interprospekt Group, UFRJ palaeontologists and students are joining excavation expeditions in Wyoming and Montana, USA. They hope to find dinosaurs that could later be displayed in Brazil.

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Community Efforts and Future Goals

This fossil donation was made possible by Frances Reynolds, an arts patron leading a campaign to encourage public and private sectors, collectors, and enthusiasts to contribute to rebuilding the museum’s collection. “A great building without a collection is nothing,” said Reynolds, who heads the Instituto Inclusartiz cultural foundation.

The goal is to gather about 10,000 objects for exhibition by the time the museum reopens. Currently, the museum has about 2,000 pieces. Digital versions of destroyed items will also be included, though their loss remains “irretrievable,” according to Kellner.

“We can’t recreate what was lost, but we can showcase new objects. Many people have already made donations,” he said, mentioning an original portrait of Maria Leopoldina, Empress of Brazil.

Support from Around the World

Last year, the National Museum of Denmark announced it would return a rare Indigenous Tupinambá mantle, a red-feather cloak housed in Europe since the 17th century, to Brazil’s National Museum. The museum’s Indigenous ethnology section suffered particularly severe losses, and researchers are collaborating closely with Indigenous Brazilians to ensure the reconstructed collection includes their perspectives.

Reynolds, an Argentinian national who considers herself Brazilian “at heart,” is in constant discussions with governments, museums, and collectors worldwide to secure new artifacts through donations or long-term loans. “This is just the beginning. It’s the first chapter of many years of work across the globe. We’re building a legacy for future generations,” she said.

Looking Ahead

While the road to recovery is long and challenging, the spirit of collaboration and generosity shown by individuals and institutions worldwide offers hope. With continued efforts and support, Brazil’s National Museum will rise from the ashes, stronger and more vibrant than ever.

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