UNESCO emergency mission to Rio de Janeiro helps guide global efforts to restore Brazil’s National Museum


UNESCO has wrapped up an expert emergency mission to the National Museum of Brazil, working closely with national and local authorities to assess damage and help guide recovery efforts in the aftermath of a huge fire that gutted the 200-year-old museum on 2 September.

The objective of the mission, from 12 to 24 September, was to assist Brazilian authorities with the arduous task of assessing the scale of the damage to the museum building and its vast collection of culturally significant objects, and to propose urgent interventions and recovery measures.

UNESCO’s mission benefited from the expertise of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). The team also included two German experts made generously available by the German Government.

The mission resulted in a detailed Action Plan that prioritizes emergency interventions, including the structural stabilization and sheltering of the museum building, salvaging artefacts from the debris, reconstituting the collections through loans and donations from other museums worldwide, and developing emergency risk management plans for other museums in Brazil.

The museum’s rich trove of more than 20 million objects included some of the first fossils found in Brazil, a 12,000-year-old human skeleton known as “Luzia”, Egyptian mummies and art dating back to the ancient Greek and Roman periods. In addition, the Museum housed loans from other international museums and the Documentation Center of Indigenous

Languages (CELIN) specialized in indigenous languages and varieties of Brazilian Portuguese, the collection of which was composed of paper archives, sound and visual materials.

While it is still unclear how much of the museum’s artefacts can be salvaged, the biggest challenge for cultural heritage experts and Brazilian authorities will be the lengthy, costly and painstaking task of retrieving, identifying, documenting, storing and eventually restoring what remains of the collections. According to the UNESCO experts who visited the Museum, its restoration and reconstruction process might take several years.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R., said the mission highlighted the importance of the work of the Organization in helping to protect cultural heritage.

“UNESCO has broad experience and expertise when it comes to museums, risk anagement, and post-disaster reconstruction. In the case of the tragic destruction of Brazil’s National Museum, we will continue to provide technical expertise and to help mobilize funding to support efforts to restore it and reconstitute its precious collection.”

In view of the challenges that lie ahead, the international community has demonstrated considerable solidarity with Brazil. UNESCO Global Geoparks will each donate a sample representative of their geological heritage to the museum in a decision adopted unanimously during the 8th International Conference on UNESCO Global Geoparks that took place on 11-14 September in Adamello Brenta UNESCO Global Geopark, Italy.

In addition, Argentina, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States have signaled their support in the form of loans of collections from museums with similar items to those of the National Museum, and technical experts, financial contributions or donations. The German Government has pledged 1 million euros for technical experts and equipment. 

A taskforce of national stakeholders has been set up by the Brazilian government to coordinate the recovery of the Museum. The stakeholders include Brazil’s Ministry of Education (which is responsible for the museum) with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the National Museum, the Ministry of Culture with the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) and the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM), the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro, civil society organizations, and the Brazilian National Committee of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM).

The mission to Brazil was deployed following a pledge of support by the UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and was made possible thanks to UNESCO’s Heritage Emergency Fund.