The one-time Imperial Palace’s pastel-yellow façade remained standing but a peek inside its giant windows revealed a roofless interior of blackened hallways and charred, smouldering beams.
Every so often, firefighters emerged with a pot or a painting they had managed to rescue.
Authorities said the cause of Sunday night’s blaze was not known.
Researchers, students and others who worked in the museum, where 20 million archives were likely destroyed, huddled in small groups outside the ruined building, consoling one another and wiping away tears.
The fire has stirred emotions in Brazil, whose angry electorate is reeling from a frail economy, widespread graft and rising violence ahead of an unpredictable presidential election next month.
Luiz Duarte, vice-director of the museum, said the institution had been neglected by successive federal governments, and that a 21.6 million real (R78m) financing plan announced in June included, ironically, a plan to install modern fire protection equipment.
Roberto Robadey, commander of the Rio fire department, told reporters yesterday that the two hydrants outside the building were dry. That forced firefighters to use water from a nearby lake and water trucks.
But the building burnt far too fast for any of that to help.
“In an ideal world we would have many things that we don’t have here: sprinklers inside the building,” he said, adding that the fire department would investigate its response and take action if needed.
“Yesterday was one of the saddest days of my career.” Reuters