Brazilians protest after museum fire

RIO DE JANEIRO — Firefighters dug through the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum on Monday, a day after flames gutted the building, as the country mourned the irreplaceable treasures lost and pointed fingers over who was to blame.

The museum held Latin America’s largest collection of historical artifacts, and the damage was feared to be catastrophic. One official told a Brazilian news outlet that as much as 90 percent may have been destroyed.

For many in Brazil, the state of the 200-year-old natural history museum quickly became a metaphor for what they see as the gutting of Brazilian culture and life during years of corruption, economic collapse and

poor governance.

“It’s a crime that the museum was allowed to get to this shape,” said Laura Albuquerque, a 29-year-old dance teacher who was in a crowd protesting outside the gates.

The cause of the fire that broke out Sunday night was not known. Federal police will investigate since the museum was part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. But protesters, commentators and museum directors themselves said years of government neglect had left the museum so underfunded that its staff had turned to crowdfunding sites to open exhibitions.

Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, criticized authorities for starving the museum of vital funding while spending lavishly on stadiums to host the World Cup in 2014.

“The money spent on each one of those stadiums — a quarter of that would have been enough to make this museum safe and resplendent,” he said in an interview in front of the still-smoldering ruins aired on Brazilian television.

Civil defense authorities were concerned that internal walls and the roof could collapse further, so officials had to wait to conduct a full accounting of losses.

Brazil has struggled to emerge from a two-year recession and has seen its political and corporate elite jailed in Latin America’s largest corruption investigation.

The country has been riven with deep political divisions following the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff.

The protesters gathered outside the museum gates tried several times to push into the site, demanding to see the damage and calling on the government to rebuild.

During the protests, police held the crowd back with pepper spray, tear gas and batons.

“This fire is what Brazilian politicians are doing to the people,” said Rosana Hollanda, a 35-year-old high school history teacher, who was crying. “They’re burning our history, and they’re burning our dreams.”

President Michel Temer announced Monday that private and public banks, as well as mining giant Vale and state-run oil company Petrobras, have agreed to help rebuild the museum and reconstitute its collections.

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