Did Stadium Subsidies Lead to Brazil’s National Museum Fire?

Earlier this month, Brazil watched thousands of years of its national and anthropological history go up in flames as the 200-year-old Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned. Historians and scientists around the world mourn the loss of millions of museum pieces preserving the culture, art, languages, and natural history of Brazil and beyond. Some even compared the tragedy to the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

Though the extent of the damage is yet to be determined, the loss likely includes ancient Egyptian and Roman artifacts, the Brazilian proclamation of independence, and Luzia, the oldest human skeleton in the Americas. Brazilian President Michel Temer called the loss “incalculable.”

Before the fire had even been extinguished, public outcry erupted as Brazilians demanded accountability for this preventable tragedy. In the midst of an economic downturn, officials had drastically slashed the museum’s funding, reducing the budget to just 10 percent of what it was in 2013. A private association resorted to crowdfunding maintenance projects, including the restoration of a termite-infested dinosaur display. Meanwhile, fire-retardant systems and nearby hydrants lay neglected.

And yet, over the same period, the Brazilian government spent billions in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. The delays, pollution, and corruption that plagued the country’s preparation for the events were widely publicized. Six of the 12 stadiums constructed for the World Cup later faced investigation for financial irregularities and bribery.

Museum officials criticized Brazilian politicians for taking bribes and other benefits while slashing funding for existing public projects and maintenance, like fire prevention at the Museu Nacional. They argue the enormous loss was, in effect, caused by cronyism and corruption. This tragedy provides a somber warning to governments everywhere because Brazil isn’t the only place diverting public funds towards grand sports projects—Los Angeles will host the Olympics in 2028 and the US will join Mexico and Canada in hosting the World Cup in 2026.

Cities face trade-offs when they lure professional teams with taxpayer-funded stadiums, and handouts given to professional sports teams require public spending sacrifices elsewhere. Sometimes the first things to go are unseen preventative measures—like road maintenance and public safety initiatives. They’re simply less flashy than a brand new ballpark or arena. But as the Museu Nacional fire tragically shows, just because some public spending is uninteresting doesn’t mean it’s not critical.

Photo credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP/Shutterstock