A little over a year after a fire consumed 72 lives in Grenfell Tower, another avertable blaze incinerated Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, home of 20 million items charting the country’s history. Most of those – current estimates stand at 90 percent – will be irretrievably lost. Just as with Grenfell, the smouldering ruin stands as a charred indictment of capitalism and austerity.
On Sunday night, as flames cracked and the stench of burned wood spread over the city, while employees heroically rushed into the flames to save what they could, one conclusion was inescapable: this could have been prevented.
The museum did not possess its own fire suppression system, and even the smoke detectors it did possess did not work properly. Compounding the disaster, the firefighters arrived at the scene only to discover that the two nearest hydrants did not contain any water, costing precious time in which the Museum and its contents had to be left to the flames.
An avertable disaster
In recent years, the Brazilian government spent billions on the Olympics, earning kickbacks for corrupt politicians in the process, while imposing savage austerity. A Brazilian history student quoted in the New York Times summarised the impacts of these cuts:
“There are no doctors in the hospitals; teachers in schools don’t make a living wage.”
This tune is all too familiar to working people world over. In order for a handful of people at the top to enjoy wealth beyond imagination, essential services must be slashed – including spending on culture and education.
This explains the deplorable state the National Museum found itself in prior to the catastrophe and is therefore directly responsible for its destruction, along with a huge chunk of Brazil’s cultural legacy.
Luiz Duarte, one of the museum’s vice-directors, said politicians had been repeatedly warned that such a calamity was impending:
“For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed.”
The memory of Brazil erased
Mércio Gomes, a Brazilian anthropologist. compared the scope of this destruction 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.”
The mere scope of this tragedy – millions of artefacts turned to ashes! – eludes the human mind. Yet even this number fails to capture what has truly been destroyed. The history of an entire country has been turned to dust.
Luzia, the oldest human skeleton in Latin America at 12,000, a connection to the ancient past of a continent, was among the victims, as were countless artefacts from the indigenous people of Brazil who lived long before European imperialism arrived.
José Urutau Guajajara, who studied at the museum, said: “This is the greatest loss of indigenous writing in Latin America. Our memory has been erased.”
The fire resulted in an outpouring of rage in Rio at government corruption and austerity, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets. Several people tried to storm the gates and enter the grounds of the still smouldering building and had to be contained by riot police using pepper spray.
Save culture from the fires of capitalism!
As a monument to the shared experience of a people, evidenced by the invaluable cultural artefacts on display, the National Museum provided for the masses of Brazil a connection to their ancestors. All of this is gone now, consumed in a bonfire of greed, corruption and neglect. Waking up on Monday morning, the world was truly an emptier and less beautiful place than it was Sunday night.
This was not the first catastrophe engendered directly by capitalism, and it will be far from the last. The ruling class will keep sacrificing our civilization, past, present, and future, until the day the working masses of this world decide they have seen enough mindless destruction.
This will be the day the workers rise up and assume control of society, to not only preserve and maintain our cultural treasures but give everyone free access to them for all time.
by Anthony Oakland, KCL Marxists