The palace that housed Brazil’s National Museum was once home to the Portuguese royal family.CreditCreditLianne Milton for The New York Times
RIO DE JANEIRO — A handful of indigenous activists and researchers were celebrating a birthday huddled around a small pit fire when they noticed the flames devouring a building a few dozen yards away.
“It’s the museum that’s on fire!” said José Urutau Guajajara, a member of the Tenetehára-Guajajara tribe who had been researching his people’s heritage in the archives of Brazil’s National Museum for more than a decade. “We can still manage to put it out with buckets.”
By the time they reached the centuries-old palace, home to the world’s largest archive of indigenous Brazilian culture and history, flames had gutted the building’s core and a dense column of smoke towered above it.
Twice, Mr. Guajajara tried to run into the building and was held back by guards. After that, his friends restrained him. Together they watched as hundreds of thousands of documents, artifacts and artworks were reduced to ashes on the night of Sept. 2.
It was a monumental loss for Brazilian historians, archaeologists and scientists. But the destruction of indigenous artifacts and research documents — including relics of tribes that are considered extinct — represented a far more personal blow for the descendants of Brazil’s oldest inhabitants, who have spent decades fighting to preserve their heritage and ancestral lands.
“This is like a new genocide, as though they had slaughtered all these indigenous communities again,” Mr. Guajajara said. “Because that was where our memory resided.”
To many Brazilians like Mr. Guajajara, it was a tragedy foretold.
In recent years, Brazil has gone to great lengths to present itself as a forward-looking country. As it prepared to host the 2014 men’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, it invested billions in state of the art stadiums, sports equipment and imposing public projects that showed it as a modern and capable nation, on par with global powers.
“We are going to show the world we can be a great country,” then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said when Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympics. “We aren’t the United States, but we are getting there, and we will get there.”
Perhaps nothing illustrated this impulse to grasp for the future — often at the expense of the past — more clearly than the contrast between the Museum of Tomorrow, a futuristic building designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and Rio’s other historical sites.
Mr. Calatrava’s gleaming white creation, which appears to hover like a spaceship over the bay in Rio de Janeiro, broke ground in 2015 and cost $59 million, with a yearly budget of $4 million.
It is just blocks from spaces that are central to understanding Brazil’s origins: a wharf that was once one of the busiest slaving ports in the Americas and a mass grave where the bodies of enslaved men and women were dumped. These sites received scant government attention and funding; the grounds of the wharf, deemed a Unesco World Heritage site, are dirty and abandoned.
When Mr. Guajajara and his friends saw the fire at the National Museum, they were gathered in the husk of what had once been Brazil’s Indian Museum. It had been abandoned for decades. The National Archives building, which fire department officials have long called a fire hazard, is nearby.
But even among these examples, the decades-long neglect of the National Museum — which had been home to emperors and Brazil’s royal family — stood out as singularly outrageous to the cash-strapped researchers who worked there.
Chronic underfunding left its halls with jury-rigged wiring, infiltrated ceilings and bat droppings along walls and shelves. A termite attack forced the closing of a dinosaur exhibit in late 2017. At one point there was not enough money to pay the cleaning crew — much less to install a fire suppression system.
Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima, a historian and anthropologist at the museum, said Brazil’s leaders had long regarded culture as a commodity and invested mainly in areas that could become profitable.
“They think of culture as a business,” Mr. de Souza said. “Not the soul of a nation.”
When the museum celebrated its 200th anniversary in June, Alexander Kellner, its director, flew to Brasília to invite the president and ministers to attend the celebration. None of them showed up.
The National Museum’s collection of indigenous artifacts included 40,000 items pertaining to more than 100 ethnic groups. Among them were delicate pieces gathered during expeditions into remote stretches of the Amazon in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A mask made by Tikuna tribesmen, which had been a gift to the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro I, was probably the oldest item in the collection, according to researchers, who believe it was collected by Bavarian scientists in 1821.
There was also an ornate feather headpiece made by members of the Munduruku tribe, which was first exhibited in 1882.
Tonico Benites, an anthropologist and member of the Guarani-Kaiowá tribe who did his doctoral research at the museum, said the fire had consumed a trove of material that he had hoped indigenous elders would one day help researchers understand.
“We certainly lost many pieces that we never managed to identify,” he said. “They were pieces there from indigenous groups that are believed to be extinct.”
Among them was a Guarani-Kaiowá instrument used to pierce the lips of teenage boys, a ritual that represented the end of youth. Mr. Benites said indigenous elders were moved when they saw the tool, which is no longer in use.
“They were happy to find it again, because they hadn’t seen it in 50 years,” Mr. Benites said.
But perhaps the most consequential loss for researchers of indigenous affairs was the collection of the German ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú. Born Curt Unckel in the German town of Jena in 1883, Mr. Nimuendajú was adopted by members of a Guarani tribe in the state of São Paulo who gave him the new name, which means “one who created his own place.”
He died among the Tikuna people in 1945, leaving behind a trove of notes, letters, expedition journals and a map he created one year before his death detailing the location and languages of the groups he had come across.
“Each year of his life he did a new expedition,” said João Pacheco, who curated the ethnological exhibition for the last 20 years. “He was the premier Brazilian ethnographer.”
The original map was copied and an adapted version was published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
But “there was another map, a unique one, where he made corrections,” said Tânia Clemente, a linguist at the National Museum. “That is lost.”
The indigenous collection included audio recordings of indigenous leaders who died several years ago, and writings about languages that have long become extinct, including Mura and Tupiniquim.
Such documents provided an essential lifeline to the past for Brazilians who have sought to discover or better understand their indigenous roots. In recent decades, many have been discouraged, if not outright banned, from doing so.
Mr. Guajajara, who was among the first researchers to reach the museum as it burned, remembers being hit with a candlestick in school for speaking Ze’egté, the language of his people.
“Out of spite I’m going to learn about it, and I’m going to write it,” he remembered thinking. He got a master’s degree at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which ran the museum, in 2013, and wrote his thesis on the Ze’egté language.
The archaeologist Denise Gomes lost indigenous ceramic pieces from the 12th and 16th centuries that she spent eight years excavating in Santarém, a city in the Amazon. She did pioneering research locating and dating fragments, some of which were stored in her office.
Doing that kind of work fulfilled a longtime dream. Now she is among scores of scholars waiting for police officials to allow them to enter their ravaged work space to sift through debris, now that their office has essentially become an archaeological site.
“We have hope we will find everything,” she said, even as she acknowledged that it would be difficult, as her office was destroyed.
The National Museum had struggled financially in recent decades and experienced calamities in the past, including a flood that drenched precious Egyptian mummies in 1995.
The 1990s were a particularly trying era for the institution, which charged visitors a nominal entrance fee.
“We didn’t even have money for toilet paper,” said Mr. de Souza, the anthropologist, who has worked at the museum for 38 years.
There were a handful of missed opportunities that could have enabled museum personnel to take better care of the building and its contents.
University officials and the World Bank discussed the possibility of securing a loan in the 1990s, but the talks fizzled. In 2014, the federal government approved an $8.6 million package to modernize the museum. But the money ultimately was not disbursed.
In recent years, the museum turned to Brazil’s National Development Bank for help. After a protracted negotiation, the bank this year committed to funding a series of improvements worth $5 million, which would have included a fire suppression system.
The overhauls were due to start late this year.
After the fire, Daniela Alarcon, an anthropologist at the National Museum who studies the Tupinambá people from the northeastern state of Bahia, collected statements about its loss from leaders from the tribe.
“That place was like a memory, a computer hard drive, that at any moment, any ethnic group, from any people, could access to get information, to know where they were, to not feel lost,” one of those leaders, Glicéria Jesus Silva, told Ms. Alarcon.
To her, the building felt like a homecoming.
“You came from here, this is your origin,” she said, describing what the museum meant to her. “What was there won’t ever come back, no one can replace it.”