Smoke rose from the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum as recriminations flew over who was responsible for a huge fire that destroyed part of Latin America’s largest collection of historical artefacts and documents.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the museum gates and tried several times to push into the site, demanding to see the damage and calling on the government to rebuild.
Police held the crowd back with pepper spray, tear gas and batons.
The museum’s director said a portion of the collection was destroyed but it was impossible to say how much. The deputy director suggested the damage could be catastrophic, with most objects in the main building probably lost, except for some meteorites.
The main building, once the home of the Brazilian royal family, housed a collection of 20 million items that included Egyptian and Greco-Roman relics and the oldest human skull found in the Western hemisphere, known as Luzia.
On Monday, the building was still standing, but much of it appeared to have been gutted. Civil defence authorities warned that the structure was not safe to enter because the roof and internal walls had been compromised and could collapse further.
It was not clear how the fire began on Sunday evening, when the museum was closed, but the flames quickly fuelled criticism of Brazil’s dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits as the nation prepares for national elections in October.
Several officials said the building was known to be in serious disrepair and at significant risk of catching fire.
Alexander Kellner, the museum’s director, told reporters at the scene; “Just crying doesn’t solve anything,” He became emotional as he described plans to salvage what was left of the collection and rebuild. “We have to act.”
The museum has suffered under funding for years that prevented renovations and forced it to close exhibits. The Folha de S Paulo newspaper reported in May, as the museum was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, that its annual budget had fallen from around £100,000 in 2013 to around £65,000 last year.