Rio de Janeiro riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray on Monday to keep a large angry crowd from entering the remains of Brazil’s National Museum after it burned down.
Several hundred people tried to forcibly get inside the museum – Latin America’s largest – in an attempt to see what ancient pieces were destroyed by the major blaze on Sunday night.
The rising tensions reflect anger over the destruction of the much-loved yet dilapidated museum, which suffered from declining federal funding in recent years.
Outside the entrance to the elegant park that houses the 200-year-old former Imperial Palace, angry protesters called on the government to rebuild the museum while trying to make their way through the gates that surround the grounds.
“Our community is very mobilised and very indignant,” said Roberto Leher, the rector of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University, which administers the museum. “We all knew the building was vulnerable.”
On Monday firefighters were trying to put out the last of the flames.
The museum had a collection of 20 million items, including Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts and the oldest human skull found in the Western hemisphere.
Although the walls remained standing, much of the inside of the building appeared to be gutted.
The museum had suffered significant budget cuts, leading it to close in 2015 because of maintenance issues.
The building, which opened in 1818, was once the home of the Portuguese royal family.
Authorities have yet to say what caused Sunday’s fire.
Brazil’s Culture Minister Sergio Leitao told the Estado de S Paulo newspaper the blaze was likely started by either an electrical short-circuit or a homemade paper hot-air balloon that may have landed on the roof.
Launching such balloons is a long-held tradition in Brazil and they routinely cause fires.
The museum also boasted a large collection of fossils, 26,000 in total. Among them were a dinosaur skeleton discovered in Brazil’s central Minas Gerais and several specimens of species that have now disappeared, such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers.
The fire stirred emotions in Brazil, whose angry electorate is reeling from a frail economy, widespread corruption, and rising violence ahead of an unpredictable presidential election in October.
Renato Rodriguez Cabral, a teacher in the geology and palaeontology department, said the museum’s decline did not happen overnight.
“This was a tragedy foretold,” Cabral said as he hugged students and co-workers. “Successive governments would not provide funds, they would not invest in infrastructure.”