“It is an enormous tragedy,” museum director Alexander Kellner said in a statement posted on Facebook early Monday.
He added that they haven’t yet been able to measure the total damage to the collection.
The museum, which is tied to the Rio de Janeiro federal university and the education ministry, was founded in 1818 and is proudly celebrating its bicentennial. It houses several landmark collections, including Egyptian artifacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil.
The museum had suffered from years of neglect under numerous governments, the institution’s vice-director the Globo TV network on Sunday night.
“We never got anything from the federal government,” said the official, Luiz Duarte. “We recently finalized an agreement with [state-run development bank] BNDES for a massive investment, so that we could finally restore the palace and, ironically, we had planned on a new fire prevention system.”
Rio residents watched the blaze in horror.
“I see the history of my country becoming ashes. It has no price. I’m devastated,” Rio resident Isabelle Ramalho told the Associated Press.
In a statement posted on its website in June, BNDES agreed to financing of $5.35 million to “physically restore the historic building” and also to carry out work to “guarantee more security to its collections.”
On Instagram, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called on the country to rebuild.
“It’s a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every eternal detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the (Portuguese) empire and the first constitution and national unity,” he said.