National Museum: A dream reborn from the ashes

On September 2, the destruction by a fire of the Paço de São Cristóvão, a neoclassical style building that housed the National Museum (Museu Nacional, NM) of Rio de Janeiro, completes two years. One of the gems of Brazilian Architecture, located at Quinta da Boa Vista, in the North Zone of the City, the museum has also been the stage for decisive moments in Brazilian history. It is the country’s longest running scientific institution and was among the biggest anthropology and natural history museums of the Americas.

The institution is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Currently, the people who worked at the museum   – around 90 researchers, 220 management staff, 120 outsourced and more than 500 students – are now working from other institutions or from home.

In an interview to Rio World Capital of Architecture, as part of the Olhares Sobre Icons do Patrimônio Carioca series, paleontologist Alexander Wilhelm Armin Kellner, 58, who has taken over the museum’s management before the fire, speaks about his expectations on the restoration of the building and its pieces. Despite the partnership to coordinate the reconstruction work, between UFRJ, Vale Foundation, the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), along with the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and members of civil society, Alexander calls for the union of Brazilians.


Pictures of the fire destroying the National Museum have shocked the world. Photo: Raphael Pizzino

  – What was lost for human culture, for humanity, is immeasurable. But we can, indeed, recover most part of it – Kellner explains, excited with the announcement he made about the discovery, by NM and UFRJ researchers, alongside with three other institutions, of a new crayfish fossil (a crustacean), found at  James Ross Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula, according to a magazine article by Polar Research Magazine. (more details on ).

Also in this edition, the history of the NM and information about the project “O Museu Nacional Vive” (The National Museum Lives), result of an agreement for international cooperation between UNESCO in Brazil, Vale Foundation and UFRJ.


Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum/ UFRJ: “I don’t have time for nightmares with the fire. Now my life goal is to see the museum reconstructed, working”


Alexander Kellner: at the forefront of the battle for the museum’s uplifting. Photo National Museum Collection

 RWCA  – Does the institution already have enough money for the reconstruction of the National Museum? Who are the donors?

ALEXANDER – No. We have a little more than half of it. As we announced in a press conference, the total estimated cost is R $ 378.9 million, 65% of which have already been collected or promised. With the release by Alerj (Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro) to transfer R $ 20 million from the Special Fund of the Fluminense Parliament to UFRJ, for revitalization and reform of the MN, through a law sanctioned by Governor Wilson Witzel and published in an extra edition of Official Gazette of the State, we have today around R $ 244.6 million.

The resources we have raised until now come from public amendments, the Federal Government (BNDES), Vale Foundation, among others. We are making a patchwork. We are still hoping for the help of the municipal government, the private sector… any penny, wherever it comes from, is welcome.

RWCA – How is the schedule for the recovery of the collection, removal of rubble and restoration of the building? When is the museum expected to reopen? To what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced the planning?

ALEXANDER – The pandemic has disrupted the whole world, in all sectors. However, in our case, we are trying to make this work at any cost, digitally.  Everyday I participate in up to 5 online meetings with different support groups. Our intention is to have some facilities open, at least some rooms open for guided tours, until 2022, the bicentenary year of our independence. It would be a synonym of shame and failure if we can’t achieve this, the basics. Wouldn’t it? The museum is important for Bbrazil, for the world, but, above all, to Rio de Janeiro. We always fight for a concerted effort. Our goal is to definitely reopen it in 2025.

RWCA – During this period, since the fire (on September 2 it will have completed two years since the tragedy), what was done to the museum?

ALEXANDER – We did t  important and meticulous work of restoring the pieces, shoring the building, cleaning, etc… There is a lot of moroseness in some sectors. Some actions respect the normal and slow course that they actually have to follow, others could be speeded up. I take everything as lessons from this enormous pain we are facing. It is just now, for example, that the State Water and Sewerage Company of Rio de Janeiro (Cedae) will finally restore the hydraulic system that supplies the fire hydrants. This is one of the most fundamental75 e 80% for the museum. It doesn’t even need to be explained, right?

RWCA – There have been reports about the fire saying that the library and collections, such as the botanical and vertebrate ones had already been moved to other places and, therefore, have survived the flames. Yet, approximately 80% of the estimated 20 million objects were still in the building. Almost half of the museum’s collection was destroyed by flames. Are these figures accurate?

ALEXANDER – We can say that between 75% and 80% of all objects were somehow affected. The good news is that 50% have not been totally lost. Part of the collections, including the biggest public one of the country, and a great part of the Egyptian mineralogy, among other collections are safe. They are still going through the identification and conservation work. Researchers are recreating part of the NM’s collections through life-size 3D printing. Some ethnographic material, however, has been completely lost. Material that represented different native tribes, for example. The existence of these tribes came down to one copy that was in our collection. These tribes now face the risk of being crossed out of history, as if they never existed. 

RWCA – Would you consider that there was a miracle in this fire?

ALEXANDER – Yes. Luzia’s skull, Americas’ most ancient fossil, estimated to be 11 thousand years is, without a doubt, the greatest miracle. We estimate that 80% of the skull has suffered some kind of modification due to the heat but, even so, it resisted. As time went by, we have found many “Luzias”, among the selfless and relentless employees and volunteers who are still working, as of today, for the reconstruction of that space, as well as symbolically, in important pieces that were rescued. These include, for example, ceramics (including the Dom Ppedro II’s collection), mineral stones, taxidermied animals, Karajá dolls and fossils, like the Maxacalissaurus, which was one of the most popular attractions among the young people who visited the museum.  Bendegó, the biggest meteorite ever to be found in Brazilian soil, has also resisted the high temperatures.

RWCA – Do you have nightmares about the fire? Does the tragedy still haunt you?

ALEXANDER – I don’t have time for nightmares about the fire. Now my life goal is to see the museum reconstructed, working. Everyday, I fill myself with hope and optimism. My feelings are channelled to the future, to optimism, to what we can restore, to the complete reopening of that monument that is one of the world’s greatest. Whatever happened, there is no turning back… 

RWCA  – Thosee scenes have shocked the world…

ALEXANDER: … If I keep mulling over this, I will become ill and won’t have the strength I need to carry on. Thanks to our efforts, donations are starting to come. With this transfer of  R$ 20 million from  the Fluminense Parliament’s Special Fund to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) for the museum’s revitalization and renovation, authorized by Alerj, we’ll be able to start the work to restore the facade and the roof this year, I hope. This cheers me up. To see our team’s efforts being rewarded.

RWCA – What will change with regard to the structure of the building that existed?

ALEXANDER –  We’ll keep the façade and the roof exactly as it was before the fire. On the inside, however, we’ll have a new museum, more modern and safe. But all of that will depend on the union of us all. Keep in mind that the museum is neither mine nor UFRJ’s It is the people’s museum, from Rio and Brazil. There is even a public notice for architects to present their proposals through  UNESCO. (More details on

About the destroyed palace

Listed since 1938 by Iphan

Designated as Historical Heritage by IPHAN (the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute) in 1938, the building had more than 13 thousand square meters. In neoclassical style, it was projected by Brazilian Architect Manuel de Araújo Porto Alegre. Meanwhile, landscaping followed Iitalian standards and was designed by landscaper Luiz Reys.

The building was inaugurated on June 6th, 1818. At that time, after the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro became the Kingdom of Portugal capital. Dom João VI promoted a series of improvements in the city, including the construction of a royal palace.

The Building was the residence of the Imperial Family 

Throughout the imperial period, the palace was the official residence of the Brazilian Imperial Family. The building was the birthplace of many historical personalities, among them Dom Pedro II (December 2, 1825), as well as his daughter Princess Isabel , in July 29, 1846. During the reign of Pedro II, many embellishment interventions were carried out in the palace. Some of them remain until nowadays, such as the gardens that date back to 1869 and were a project of the french landscaper François Marie Glaziou.

After the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889, the palace became the building of the National Assembly, which was responsible for the  Constitution of 1891. From 1892 onwards, it became home of the National Museum and, in 1846, it was incorporated to UFRJ (Rio de Janeiro Federal University). The Paço de São Cristóvão, as the palace was named, was home to the museum until 2018.


The Egyptian Room, one of the most visited in the museum, will have many items that were not lost in the fire. Photo: Eneraldo Carneiro/ National Museum

The National Museum

An institution that is autonomous from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and  linked to the Ministry of Education, the National Museum had been in operation for two2 centuries when it suffered the fire. To maintain its operation in a proper way, monthly transfers of about R$ 550 thousandmil  were necessary. However, 2018 was the year with the lowest investment to the museum, around 10% of the all necessary funds.

Source:  Portal 44 Arquitetura (

 Museu Nacional Vive Project (National Museum Lives)

Among other actions, the project implements a governance structure, aiming at establishing strategic guidelines, monitoring and planning optimization and  articulation actions for different initiatives and projects, as well as ensuring the regular execution and continuity of the reconstruction and restoration of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. It specifically concentrates on the reconstruction and restoration of the  Paço de São Cristóvão and its annex building; the setup of the museum to receive the new museography, the restoration of the Library and the Botanical Garden; and the establishment of the Cavalariças (Stable) Campus.

The governance structure also aims at expanding the society’s participation in the project. It is centered in the work of three forums. 

The Executive Committee – The main deliberative body, to which the project’s Technical Management group will be  subordinated To;

The Institutional Committee – Consultative and with the participation of public, private and governmental partners;

The Post-Inauguration Safety and Sustainability Working Group – Coordinated by BNDES and engaged by the Associação Amigos do Museu Nacional Friends of the National Museum Association) and other institutions of the third sector.

The first stage is the execution of architecture, museography and content projects, as well as the environmental sustainability certification, among other actions, such as the restoration of integrated archives, educational and social mobilization activities. Once this stage is over, the intention is to implement projects based on the tax incentive mechanisms to culture and to capture investments from the private sector in order to promote this reconstruction.


The National Museum after the fire. The reconstruction will maintain only the façades. On the inside, the space will be characterized by modernity. Photo: The National Museum’s website after the fire.

UNESCO offers its experience and technical knowledge in the field of museums and protection ofto cultural heritage, in order to overcome the operational challenges of this project.

– The goal is to restore this important cultural, academic and scientific institution, available to the Bbrazilian and international societies. The National Museum has a historic value and unparalleled relevance to mankind -, Marlova Jovchelovitch Noleto, director and representative of UNESCO in Brazil

After the fire, through UNESCO’s Heritage Emergency Fund, a Mission of specialists was organized to support the local partners in the first actions. In a joint effort with the Ministry of Culture (MinC), the Ministry of Education (MEC), UFRJ, the National Museum, the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM) and the International Committee of Museums (ICOM), the mission, led by an UNESCO’s expert and assisted by a specialist from the International Studies Center for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ICCROM), as well as German technicians, has helped Brazilian authorities in the diagnosis of the National Museum’s situation and to evaluate the damage suffered by the museum and its collection.


Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *