Thousands of artifacts belonging to the National Museum of Gungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo were lost during a fire at the institution that began late in the night on November 4. The origins of the fire remain unclear, though museum officials hinted that the blaze may have been started intentionally.
According to the BBC, between 8,000 and 9,000 artifacts—roughly a third of the museum’s holdings—burned in the fire. Some of those artifacts dated back to the 18th century. Among them were works associated with the Pende people, who live in the southwestern portion of the country and craft masks that are used during various rituals.
Franck Gatola Mungiela, the provincial deputy of Gungu, told the Congolese outlet 7sur7 that the works lost in the fire were of “national heritage.” Because of the scale of the destruction the museum has weathered, an official investigation into the blaze’s origins is being launched.
Aristotle Kibala, the National Museum of Gungu’s director, alluded to the possibility that the fire may have been arson. He told the French outlet TV5Monde that he had heard a “loud cannon shot” on the night of November 4 and then discovered the blaze. “The exact reasons for this despicable act are not yet known,” Kibala said. “But I know that I have always been opposed by several politicians in the country.”
The National Museum of Gungu is considered one of the most important museums in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with more than 25,000 works in its holdings. Kibala valued those works at around $15 million. Next year, the museum’s collection is expected to figure prominently in an annual festival that takes place in Gungu.