Editorial Feature

What's next for Museu Nacional?

The story of Brazil's oldest natural history museum and director Alexander Kellner's plans for the future

The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s oldest natural history institution, founded in June 1818 by King João VI of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves. Originally it was called the Royal Museum, because when the Royal family migrated to Brazil, their whole empire was transferred there, making Portugal and Algarves part of the Kingdom of Brazil. Soon after, the museum was used to stimulate scientific research in the kingdom.

By the end of the 19th century, the National Museum started to invest in the areas of anthropology, paleontology, and archaeology, reflecting the personal preferences of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Pedro II (1825–1891). The Emperor, who was an avid amateur scientist and enthusiastic supporter of all branches of science, himself contributed to several of the collections including donating the Ancient Egyptian art that he acquired during many of his trips abroad. As a result of this effort, the National Museum was modernized and became the most important museum of Natural History and Human Sciences in South America.

Coffin of Sha-amun-en-su (From the collection of Museu Nacional)

In 1946, the Museum’s management passed to the University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. In order to encourage and nurture young scientists, the National Museum offers graduate courses in anthropology and sociology, botany, geology and paleontology, and zoology.

Titanosaurus (replica) (From the collection of Museu Nacional)

Over the centuries the museum became home to more than 20 million scientific and historical items. However the future of those artifacts was put in jeopardy on September 2, 2018. Three months after celebrating its bicentennial and a few days before the 196th anniversary of Brazil’s proclamation of independence, a huge fire spread throughout the National Museum, engulfing almost all of its rooms and completely destroying large parts of the building.

While the full damage is still being assessed, it’s thought 92.5 % of its archive has been destroyed in the fire. Writing about the fire in an open letter, director of the museum Alexander Kellner said the focus for him and those who work at the museum, is on continuing the work of the institution’s researchers and students. “It is important to stress that the National Museum, despite having lost a significant part of its collection, has not lost its ability to generate knowledge!” Kellner explained.

Meteorite Bendegó (From the collection of Museu Nacional)

In the months that have followed the fire, an outpouring of support for the museum has emerged, with many calling the incident a “cultural tragedy”. What’s clear is that it’s not over for the museum. “The National Museum lives!” the director proclaimed in his letter and it seems this is actively being practiced through its campaign encouraging visitors and patrons of the museum to share their photographs of the space and artifacts, as well as a handful of other ways to support the salvage efforts.

A plan to restore the museum to its former glory is in the works, as part of a governmental event where they will announce the reconstruction efforts planned for the next few years. The project is expected to cost R$10 million and the money is being offered by the Brazilian Government as an emergency budget.

Human skull of female individual (From the collection of Museu Nacional)


In the meantime, Google Arts & Culture invites you to revisit or discover the museum digitally by experiencing the treasures that once adorned its galleries and use Street View to walk through the majestic space. Here you can see such treasures such as the oldest human skeleton in the Americas, the Bendegó Meteorite, and an unparalleled collection of ancient Brazilian ceramics.

Credits: All media
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