AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, went up in flames last night. Today a large crowd gathered outside its gates to mourn the 200-year-old institution.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).
CORNISH: People tried to inspect the damage, hoping that at least some of the vast priceless collection had survived. The museum was home to some 20 million artifacts, from one of the oldest human skeletons to treasures from lost Amazonian cultures. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now from Rio to explain. Hey there, Phil.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So this museum was built in an old Imperial Palace. The images of it show this beautiful space engulfed by this huge fire. Tell us what you've been seeing.
REEVES: Yeah. Well, it is a very big and very beautiful building set amid lawns and gardens. It's neoclassical in style, pale yellow. It once housed the Portuguese royal family and, after that, the Brazilian imperial family. The facade, you know, the columns and the wrought iron balconies and so on are more or less intact. But when you look through the windows, all you see is smoldering wreckage and detritus. The damage is enormous.
CORNISH: You actually spoke with members of that crowd that we heard earlier. What were people saying to you?
REEVES: Yeah. There's about several thousand people in all who gathered outside. Many of them were young Brazilians. Many of them were museum workers or researchers who relied on the museum for their work. It was extremely sad. There were a lot of tears. A lot of people were hugging and consoling each other. And one of the people who was gathered there was Paulo Magno (ph), a researcher at the museum who's an entomologist. He works with insects.
PAULO MAGNO: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: Magno says he's been collecting and researching insects around Brazil his entire life, and many other researches have done the same. And all that work which is now in the museum has turned to ashes, he says. It's lamentable. Lamentable, he said. I also spoke to a woman called Cindy Costa (ph), a teacher. She just went there to look at the scene and grieve.
CINDY COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: She says she feels huge sadness about the loss of Brazil's rich heritage and accuses the country's political leadership of failing to care about it or to do anything, like, enough to preserve the cultural heritage of Brazil.
CORNISH: As we mentioned, the collection was vast. But is there a particular area people are most concerned about?
REEVES: Yeah. This was the - is the biggest - was the biggest collection of artifacts and documents in Latin America. And by the way, we don't know how much of it has been saved and how much has been lost, but it appears to have taken a very serious degree of damage. It's particularly renowned for natural history and anthropology, but there's a vast trove of other stuff - of paintings and photos of indigenous Brazilian art, treasures from Afro-Brazilian culture. At the same time, there are artifacts from ancient Rome collected by emperors and so many riches, including Egyptian mummies. The list is extremely long, and when you read it, you can only feel deep sadness.
I met Professor Eliana Geddes (ph) at the museum also. She works in a department that has a collection that features...
ELIANA GEDDES: Bones from dinosaurs, meteorites, minerals and rocks.
REEVES: This is priceless.
GEDDES: Priceless, priceless. It's not something that you can go out and buy a new one.
REEVES: Geddes is actually in charge of the rock collection, including meteorites. And she was waiting outside to see how much damage her collection had suffered. She was preparing herself for the worst but said whatever, she is determined to rebuild the museum.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio. Thank you for your reporting.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.