AC unit to blame for museum blaze in Brazil

AC unit to blame for museum blaze in Brazil
National Museum of Brazil prior to the fire. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

Seven months after a devastating fire swept through Brazil’s National Museum, an air conditioning unit has been cited as the ‘primary cause’ of the blaze. The announcement was made by police experts on April 4th although the investigation is ongoing.

‘There was various pieces of evidence that allowed us to conclude that the (air conditioning unit) was the primary cause of the fire,’ said Marco Antonio Zatta in a news conference in Rio de Janeiro. It appears that the unit was receiving too strong of an electrical current causing them to become overloaded. Brazil’s federal police have also cited other issues that led to the fire. These included faulty fire extinguishers and recommended fire protective devices like hoses, sprinklers, and fire doors.

If these issues weren’t problem enough, the nonprofit Open Accounts found that the museum was not spending anywhere near the sufficient amounts of money on safety equipment. Between 2015 and 2017, the National Museum only spent around $4,000 on such measures. However, during that time, the museum only received portions of the funds promised by Brazil’s government. In fact, since 2014 the museum had not seen the full $128,000 budgeted for the institution. This year, only a little more than 10% of that full amount was given to the museum resulting in near closures prior to the fire.

During the blaze, temperatures rose to over 1,000 degrees centigrade in the museum’s auditorium, which was the epicenter of the fire. The extreme temperatures made it nearly impossible for investigators to determine exactly why the air conditioning unit ultimately sparked.

The aftermath of the fire has been overwhelming to say the least. In the weeks following the fire, researchers sifted through the rubble recovering more than 1,500 artefacts including crystals, minerals, and various other objects. This was of only some comfort, though, given that the museum’s pre-fire collection consisted of around 20 million artefacts. Of the lost arefects (estimated to be about 93% of the collection), ‘Luzia’, the 12,000-year-old remains of a Latin American woman and the oldest such remains, was potentially one of the most significant losses to the fire. Some artefacts were recorded, though, by Google’s Arts and Cultures (GAaC) platform. GAaC, alongside the Federal University and Brazilian Ministry of Culture, began the initiative in 2016 and intended to document the entirety of the museum’s stores. While the initiative was incomplete, GAaC has since launched a virtual tour of the portions of the museum that were documented. In November, the Smithsonian Institute, Fulbright Commission, US Diplomatic mission in Brazil, US department of state, and others were also working to bring 14 research students from the Federal University to the States to continue research that was all but lost during the blaze.

Now, efforts are being made to restore the museum’s façade as the first step in rebuilding the institution.