Massive Fossil Donation Helps Brazil’s National Museum Rise From the Ashes

On the night of Sept. 2, 2018, a fire swept through the National Museum of Brazil, devastating the country’s oldest scientific institution and one of South America’s biggest and most important museums. On Tuesday, the museum announced that it received a major donation of ancient Brazilian fossils to help rebuild its collection ahead of a scheduled 2026 reopening.

Burkhard Pohl, a Swiss-German collector and entrepreneur who maintains one of the world’s largest private fossil collections, has handed over to the National Museum about 1,100 specimens, all of which originated in Brazil. The donation is the biggest and most scientifically important contribution yet to the museum’s rebuilding efforts, after the loss of 85 percent of its roughly 20 million specimens and artifacts in the fire.

The move also returns scientific treasure to a country that has often seen its natural heritage vanish beyond its borders — and presents a potential global model for building a natural history museum in the 21st century.

“The most important thing is to show to the world, in Brazil and outside Brazil, that we are uniting private people and public institutions,” Alexander Kellner, the National Museum’s director, said. “We want others to follow this example, if possible, to help us with this really herculean task.”

Far more than the public exhibits they host, natural history museums safeguard the world’s scientific and cultural heritage for future generations. The 2018 fire destroyed the National Museum’s entire collections of insects and spiders, as well as Egyptian mummies bought by the erstwhile Brazilian imperial family.

From left, Burkhard Pohl, the collector; Frances Reynolds, founder of the Instituto Inclusartiz; and Alexander Kellner, the National Museum’s director, during an announcement of the donation.Credit…Diogo Vasconcellos
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