What The Burning-Down of Brazil’s National Museum Means

Brazil will forever miss a significant part of its history, culture and science.

An uncontrollable fire ripped through the National Museum this month, a literal palace constructed before the country’s independence and preserved through the peak years of Rio de Janeiro’s time as a major gateway between the old and new worlds.

Held between the historical walls were unique documents on the geographical history of the vast country, anthropological studies on its many thousands of native populations and its most stunning pieces of colonial-era art. Beyond this, it was also an important center for research, housing numerous scientists at the forefront of their fields.

The blaze highlights once again an increasing Brazilian tendency to outsource blame against the context of fading national unity and a growing state of hopelessness.

When it comes to the question of who is responsible for such a significant part of Brazil’s history lying in ashes, the answer first and foremost is: the government. At both the state and federal level the Brazilian government is of course responsible for allowing its institutions to fall into such a state of disrepair.

A recent history of austerity has meant that along with drastic pension cuts that are shaking the foundations of the Brazilian class system, funding for the arts, sciences and culture is also diminishing rapidly. The Federal University which was responsible for the resources allocated to the museum last year decided to dedicate 6 million Brazilian reais to an anniversary party – far outweighing the annual budget for accident prevention and preservation of installations. Clearly the systems of accountability in place for the museum’s maintenance were not up to scratch.

However, this is not simply a case of a government not having directed sufficient amounts of money towards the correct budget. It is the story of a country that incrementally began to place less value on its own culture, and furthermore its own sense of responsibility.

The blame also lies with the Brazilian people, as a government alone cannot be held entirely responsible for the zeitgeist of a nation. It is a now commonly reported fact that more Brazilians visit the Louvre in Paris each year than visited the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, which stood on their front doorstep.

Brazil is a country that has lost its way. If there is crime, tragedy or natural phenomenon – generic or specific – the new Brazilian mindset is one of outsourcing blame.

Occurring against the backdrop of the most contentious election in a generation, the blaze is symbolic of a country which walks forward but with no direction. Of the two presidential candidates that stand likely to go into the second round of voting, one sits behind bars implicated in a corruption scandal that permeates every branch of the state, the other moves in and out of consciousness on a hospital bed, suffering from nearly fatal stab wounds that many claim he provoked through his incendiary statements about women and homosexuals.

After a rollercoaster decade that has seen huge public spending on the Olympics and World Cup, a far-reaching corruption scandal which saw a president impeached and an increase in violent crime, the country now has in before it a resurgent far-right and an infant mortality rate that is rising for the first time since the 1980s.

The next year for Brazil will be unfortunately one of merely prioritizing survival, rather than optimism, and as for national unity it seems divisions will grow before they are repaired.

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