‘South America’s biggest museum was destroyed by fire on my watch’

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The fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris devastated one of the world’s most iconic buildings, an incalculable loss to humanity’s architectural, religious and cultural heritage. Alexander Kellner knows exactly what this feels like. He was in charge of Brazil’s National Museum when it burnt down last year, destroying more than 90% of the collection. This is his story.

By Simon Allison

April  16, 2019

Alexander Kellner did not need to take the job. He is a world-famous palaeontologist, with a shelf lined with awards and more than 500 publications to his name, and he was quite happy in his routine of teaching and researching and otherwise minding his own business.

But, by his own account, he is also an excellent administrator. This is unusual for a world-famous palaeontologist. In the absence of any other obvious candidates, his colleagues begged him to go for it. You can make a difference, they told him. The museum needs you.

With some trepidation, and against the advice of his family – “You’re crazy, don’t do it, Dad, you don’t need this. The museum is in bad shape and you’re going to risk a lot” – he put his name forward for consideration. His academic track record coupled with his immense charisma made him a natural fit, and the selection committee agreed.

In February 2018 the 57-year-old started his new job: Alexander Kellner, Director of Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, responsible for maintaining and protecting the more than 20 million priceless fossils, artefacts, artwork and documents that together form the bulk of South America’s recorded history.

Six months later, the museum burned down. 90% of the collection was lost.

Kellner was on a plane when the the fire began in the early evening of September 2, returning from a romantic weekend away with his partner. He arrived at the airport in Rio two hours later. He knew something was wrong when his son – the same son that warned him against applying for the directorship — was waiting for him at arrivals. “There’s a fire, Dad,” he said. Kellner asked him how bad it was, and he just shook his head.

They rushed to the museum, which is housed in what used to be the imperial palace: an elegant, stately mansion on a hill overlooking central Rio. Black smoke billowed from the windows. There were firemen already on the scene, but the hydrants were not connected to the water mains, so they could do little to control the blaze.

Inside, there was nothing to prevent the fire spreading. Because the palace is a protected heritage building, the museum was not allowed to install a sprinkler system or fire doors. “I know it sounds absurd what I am saying, but that’s the way it was,” said Kellner, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. Over the objections of the fire chief, Kellner and the few staff members there began to remove whatever specimens they could access; just half a dozen people rushing frantically in and out of the building to rescue what was left of thousands of years of world history.

“We were able to remove pretty much everything from that part we could access,” said Kellner. “But it was very clear to me that if we would have done it two hours earlier” – while he was still on the plane, oblivious – “we would have saved over half the collection. I kept asking people who were there earlier, and they said, well, [the firemen] told us they would dominate the fire. The water is coming. Don’t worry.”

The water never came. And the fire hydrants still don’t work.

For Kellner, everything changed that night. “I was a prominent scientist. Now I am the director of the museum that caught on fire,” he says, speaking in early April to a gathering of artists and other museum directors at the Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi.

This is a big part of his job now: travelling the world to raise funds and network and solicit letters of support, or anything else that might help in the reconstruction effort, which so far is not going so well.

Work to repair the building itself has yet to begin, and what remains of the collection is stuffed into shipping containers. Kellner needs more shipping containers, and space to put them, and special palaeontology brushes to sift through the rubble for any fossils or artefacts that may have survived the fire. The irony is not lost on him: the museum itself is now an archaeological dig, and bones that were dug up once before must be dug up and pieced together all over again.

The audience at the Culture Summit was largely sympathetic: many are themselves guardians of cultural institutions, and are all too familiar with the heavy weight of responsibility that comes with the job.

Ali Ould Sidi, who for decades managed the heritage sites in Timbuktu, knows exactly what Kellner is going through. “I was touched, I was very concerned. These are the same things that happened in Timbuktu.” With one crucial difference: in Timbuktu, it was an act of wilful destruction. In 2012, Islamist militants destroyed the town’s ancient mosques and mausoluems, and burnt precious manuscripts that were 800 years old. Preserving and documenting Timbuktu’s history was Sidi’s life work; when it was razed, so was a part of his identity.

But for the grace of god, Raymond Asombang, the director of Cameroon’s national museum in Yaounde, knows that he too could be standing in the shoes of Kellner or Sidi. He still might, and it is a terrifying prospect. “In my village you are seen to be a very bad babysitter if the baby dies in your hands,” he tells the summit.

Later, in the corridors, Kellner finds Asombang and says: “You really put your finger in the wound. But you’re right.”

In an interview, Asombang said that every night when he goes to sleep he wonders if he will be woken up with news of a disaster. “My museum is housed in an old presidential palace with old electrical and water installations and indeed we have had two outbreaks of fire but we succeeded in putting them out. When installations are that old, that is the risk that you face. So I was really moved to listen to [Kellner’s] story and how he has handled it.”

Kellner says that before the museum burnt down it was chronically under-funded; that no money was made available by the state for the maintenance and repairs that were so obviously needed. Kellner’s own office in the museum had been shut for years because of a leaking roof, but Kellner chose to re-open it so that all of his high-profile visitors could see the poor state of the building for themselves.

“There’s money for Olympics, for soccer stadiums, but no money for museums,” said Kellner. Rio’s brand new Maracanã Stadium, built at a cost of half a billion dollar, is visible from the steps of the museum, but so far the Brazilian government has committed just $15 million to the reconstruction effort.

Asombang finds himself in a similar situation. “When it comes to using the museum for national pride, the politicians are very quick to use that. But when it comes to putting in money they become reticent. The money is good for political rallies and other things, but not for culture.”

[Read more: A broken museum in a broken country – meet the man trying to save the Central African Republic’s history]

There is no way to know exactly what was taken by the flames. The collection was never fully catalogued; and anyway, the digital archive was housed on a server inside the museum. It was destroyed in the fire. “One of the saddest parts of all of this is the knowledge that in our collection there may have been items of hidden tribes that don’t exist any more. And maybe the sole evidence of their existence has now been erased from history,” said Kellner.

The catastrophe has left him with a strong sense of disquiet and unease. Powerful, wealthy nations like Brazil are supposed to be able to take care of their cultural heritage; that it has not is perhaps a sign of a much deeper malaise affecting the very fabric of modern civilisation. “I kind of have the feeling that we are on the verge of something, worldwide, and it’s not good. Imagine the people who are living before the first world war and the second world  war, there’s something in the air, and I don’t know how to explain it very well.”

Along with his immense grief at what was lost, Kellner now faces the prospect of being sued for negligence by the state. His sons are both lawyers, and are helping him to prepare his defence.

He also grapples with his feelings of guilt. “The guy from Cameroon pointed it out, the kid who was taking care of the baby, it doesn’t matter the conditions. Who was there? It’s very unfair from life what has happened to myself, and for the museum. I keep on thinking what I could have done differently. And that’s really frustrating. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing.

“Look, I’m human. Of course there are times I say dammit, why. The point here is, I did not ask for this job. That’s not what I signed up for. And life just trashes you. So what am I going to do now? I’m going to work. I’m going to rebuild the museum. As long as I live, as long as I am in office.”

Photo credits: Pilar Olivares/Reuters and Mauro Pimental/AFP

Title video credit: Excerpt from CBC News report

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