The huge fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was a symptom of crippling austerity that has consumed a fundamental part of the Brazilian collective memory.

On the first Sunday night in September, a fire destroyed the bicentennial National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and caused outrage over the budget cuts imposed by Michel Temer’s de facto government. This austericide destroyed part of the Brazilian collective memory.

Founded in 1818, the Museum was one of the country’s main institutions for research, education and culture, with more than 20 million pieces held in geology, paleontology, ethnology and history collections, as well as 530,000 books. Like many other institutions since the onset of the de facto government two years ago, the Museum had been experiencing financial difficulties, with resources lacking even for maintenance.

Moments of sadness and tension, along with skirmishes between protesters and police, took place in front of the National Museum, as the fire’s devastation focused debate on budgetary cuts in Brazil. ‘It does not serve us to just cry. It is necessary that the federal government, which has resources, helps the Museum to reconstruct its history’, said the bicentenary institution’s director, Alexandre Keller.

UNESCO expressed regret over ‘the greatest tragedy for Brazilian culture in recent times’ and denounced that the fire ‘exposes the fragility of national mechanisms for the preservation of their cultural assets’. The de facto government of Michel Temer, when questioned over cuts, announced the creation of an ‘economic support network’ with large public and private companies to facilitate the reconstruction of this jewel of Brazilian heritage, although without providing details about the anticipated resources.

The fire, which represents an irreparable loss for Brazilian science, education and memory, is a clear consequence of the Temer government’s structural austerity policies, consecrated in Constitutional Amendment 95 which freezes national spending for 20 years and is limited by the inflation rate.

As such, the flames that corroded and turned to smoke an entire society’s memory symbolise, tragically, the consequences of austerity and the lack of concern for higher education and research. In addition, according to André Kaysel, an academic at the Campinas State University (UNICAMP), they reveal something deeper and more dismal: the destruction of a nation still under construction.

Linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the institution had suffered cuts in funding, which forced it to close several spaces to the public, and was awaiting $5.3 million dollars in sponsorship signed with the Brazilian Development Bank in June.

The incident was declared at 7.30pm on Sunday due to unknown causes, when doors had already closed. The four guards managed to escape and no victims were reported. But the flames spread rapidly throughout the three floors of highly flammable materials. The 20 fire stations mobilised took six hours to get the fire under control.

The destruction is an immeasurable loss for Brazil, and for the planet, as unique and irreplaceable pieces from many nations and representative of diverse cultures in America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East were lost in the disaster. Among them were many grouped in the largest archaeological collection from ancient Egypt that existed in the hemisphere, as well as more than 700 pieces from Greek, Roman and Etruscan civilizations. It is a devastating blow to scientific knowledge around the whole world.

Several museum employees had reported cracked and peeling walls, open electrical installations and a lack of fire-fighting devices, as well as totally insufficient surveillance (four people for a construction of 20,000m2), which did not detect the outbreak of the fire. Since 2014, the museum had stopped receiving around $130,000 dollars per year allocated for conservation and restoration. Meanwhile, Brazil invested $6 billion dollars on 36 combat aircraft – the Swedish-made Saab 39 Gripen – while its main museum for the sciences accumulated catastrophic conditions.

The preservation and protection of scientific and historical heritage should be a priority budget item, preceded only by the population’s safety and welfare. The tragic loss of Brazil’s National Museum should, at least, serve as a warning sign to all neoliberal governments, mired in the austerity of transnational capitalism.

The fire that consumed a fundamental part of the Brazilian collective memory on Sunday is the cruellest symptom of the destruction to which the country is being subjected by its elites in the name of profitability. According to Kaysel, if the democratic will of the people fails to overcome reaction, the country will follow the path of an atomised society that is prisoner to present fears and insecurity: without a past and therefore incapable of a future.

Translated by Alborada

This article was previously published in Spanish in Alainet.