RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's Federal Police on Monday wrapped up an investigation into a 2018 fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro that destroyed much of its 20-million-artifact collection, and ruled out any criminal offense.
The blaze in the former palace likely started with an air conditioning unit inside an auditorium near the front entrance, according to a statement from police. Arson was ruled out.
The police also said museum directors' conduct did not constitute neglect, given efforts underway to bring the building up to fire code. It was more than two centuries old.
The National Museum housed furniture and art belonging to the royal family, recordings of Indigenous languages — some of which are no longer spoken — priceless specimens of everything from rare butterflies to coral and a collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts considered the largest in Latin America.
Some artifacts have been recovered, notably most fragments of a skull belonging to a woman dubbed Luzia. It is one of the oldest human fossils ever found in the Americas, and was a top museum treasure. Recovery efforts have been suspended since March due to the ongoing pandemic.
The building was once a royal palace that served as the seat of the united Portuguese and Brazilian empire before the museum’s collection was transferred there in 1892. Today the colonial-era facade is a burned-out shell that is fenced off for reconstruction.
Following an inspection by Rio’s firefighting corps, the National Museum began negotiating a deal with the Rio-based development bank BNDES to renovate the building and upgrade its fire-prevention system. The loan agreement was signed in June 2018, but the funds hadn’t yet been disbursed when the fire occurred in September.
The fire represented a gut punch for many Brazilians, who felt the incident laid bare the decay of cultural institutions during years of corruption, economic collapse and poor governance. The education ministry and science and technology ministry have since directed millions to the museum for emergency and recovery works. Companies and individuals have also donated, along with the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, Germany's government and the British Council.
The museum has so far raised about half the $60 million required for reconstruction, and aims for partial reopening by 2022, the bicentenial of Brazil's independence, its press office said in a statement.
Last month, part of the the Federal University of Minas Gerais’ Natural History Museum also burned down.
"We cannot — and should not — ignore another situation like this, especially taking into account the tragic fire of the National Museum,″ the latter institution's director, Alexander Kellner, said in a statement posted to Facebook at the time.