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The National Museum Fire in Brazil

Fire at Museu Nacional

The destruction of twenty million specimens and artifacts in the fire that engulfed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on the night of Sunday September 2nd devastated not only knowledge that had been accumulated in the past, but also knowledge that could have been acquired in the future. For the Museum’s superb archeological, ethnographic and anthropological collections offered incalculable chances to learn more about our cultural human heritage.

The former residence of the Brazilian royal family, the two-hundred-year-old palace stood out on a hill at the heart of the magnificent park of São Cristóvão. “Museum” is but an umbrella for several departments, graduate programs, laboratories, libraries, archives, and exhibit areas belonging to Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Except for some natural historical collections stored in an adjacent building, the museum’s archive has been almost entirely destroyed.

The event has quickly become an emblem of Brazil’s quintessential failure. Students were the first to call for public acts of mourning and protest. Taking the overlapping meaning of mourning and fighting of the Portuguese “luto” as a motto, they gathered protesters in front of the museum and in downtown Rio before twenty-four hours had elapsed.

I heard about the fire right after it started, and witnessed online the firefighters struggling to get hold of necessary, yet unavailable means to put out the fire. As I watched the flames taking hold of the building, numerous items flooded my memory: Luzia’s 12,000-year-old skull; gorgeous indigenous feather work and masks; unique, nineteenth-century
engravings; recordings of indigenous languages long extinct; photographs and films of twentieth-century of ethnographic expeditions; the sixteenth-century-amour exchanged between the French and their Tupinambá allies.

On Monday morning, I drove to the university campus where I teach, struggling to contemplate how to teach my English literature class, while listening to the broadcast of the incalculable loss. Many sleepless colleagues arrived earlier than usual. Some were so appalled that they could barely speak; others showed indignation at a catastrophe bound to happen; others still confessed they had no idea of the magnitude of the treasures kept in the National Museum. Perplexed students insisted that classes should be cancelled. During the night and early in the morning students, faculty, employees, friends and neighbors had kept vigil in front of the Museum.

The students’ action to mobilize citizens to show their collective indignation was spread effectively on social media. It was hard to remain indifferent to their call. Only because I had to attend the funeral of a long-lived friend, I did not head for the vigil in front of the museum. Somehow the connection with a mournful, yet expected end of an individual’s fulfilled life exposed the shocking disappearance of an institution designed to outlast time. Later in the afternoon, I rushed to the public act of grieving and protesting downtown. Thousands and thousands of people linked to the university gathered on the square and listened to young activists and politicians. The fire quickly ignited the political campaign of candidates running in this year’s general elections. In no time the tragedy became the final verdict against the government – of the city, the state and the national federation. The most passionate activists blamed the disaster on recalcitrant fascists. Many assumed that the fire was the outcome of a deliberate plan to erase Brazilian’s collective memory. Dispossessed of our past, we had been thrown back to our bleak colonial condition. I headed home.

I believe that the present situation of the country makes it impossible not to blame the government for the museum’s destruction. Austerity measures have threatened the basic functions of the state. The president’s popularity has plunged to 3%. Among those under twenty-four-years old it is near zero. Even supporters of the impeachment maneuver that put him in office are repulsed. The damage inflicted on the country’s basic institutions is discouraging. In 2017 the federal science budget was slashed by nearly half. The downturn in funding dedicated to the National Museum had never before been so drastic as this year.

With general elections scheduled for October, fashioning the National Museum fire into a weapon of the political campaign is understandable. Critics of the federal government poured out figures that denounced the distortions of public spending; whether the astronomical costs of presidential meals, or the pyrotechnic military intervention in Rio, the National Museum’s budget seemed, among countless examples, painfully parsimonious.

But the sobering fact is that the tragedy predates recent federal cuts to science and education. It was caused by decades of structural neglect. The building’s disrepair is no news. That the public had access to only 1% of the 20 million items of the Museum’s largely unexplored archive rested not only on curatorial reasons, but also on lack of investment. Not just insiders knew that many collections were not kept in the right conditions. Since 2006 no inspection and testing of fire security had been conducted in the building, a failure for which both the city and university should take responsibility. When the fire broke out, the nearest hydrants were dry and the firefighters had to use water from a nearby lake brought in by water trucks. In 2004, a former Minister of Energy caused uproar for warning, upon visiting the building’s facilities, that the outdated electrical wiring posed a serious risk of fire. This year the Museum was celebrating its 200th anniversary, and in July the institution had closed a deal with the National Bank of Development for funds that included a fire prevention project, too late in coming.

The destruction of the National Museum is no longer in the headlines and threatens to fall into oblivion. The knife attack on the forerunning presidential candidate on September 7th threw the country’s elections into disarray. The heated presidential race, polarized between left-weaning and far-right candidates, is taking away our breath. Still, one wonders what happened to the Museum’s faculty and students? Dispersed on different campuses, they continue to meet for seminar sessions, initiate donation campaigns, plan the reconstruction of several collections, debate the museum’s future, and struggle to pursue their research projects. Last weekend they organized an open-air exhibit in front of the Museum’s ruins: “The Museum lives” (#o museu vive) displaying some awesome naturalia that survived the fire and magnificent research projects that are still being conducted. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were among the visitors, a small yet vivid crowd consisting mostly of non-academics. The remaining structure of the building has been sealed off with a white temporary fencing. Nobody except construction workers involved in the operation to rescue the ruins is allowed to enter. The neoclassical façade, impervious to the fire, stands like a veil against the void.

Reading the newsletter of an agency for research funding in the state of Rio de Janeiro, I learned that the anthropologist Elena Welper digitized part of the Curt (Unkel) Nimuendajú archive, which was part of the National Museum holdings. Nimuendajú’s archive was among the most important ethno-historical collections in Latin America. Thanks to Ms. Welper almost the entirety of photographs is available online. Her edition of the correspondence between Nimuendajú and Herbert Baldus is forthcoming. We had a long, moving conversation over the phone. She said that the exact account of the destruction is not yet available. The remnants of the fire need to be removed and sifted through. Part of Nimuendajú’s archive, she explained, was kept in iron-closets. She cannot give up the hope for extant fragments. Since other institutions hold Nimuendajú’s archives, it would be possible to partially reassemble the Museum National’s original collection. To be sure, it would never be the same. Yet, it would offer an invaluable source for researchers.

A horrific archival loss on this scale has not occurred since the Second World War. For me it brought to mind the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin. In Brazil, there has been little debate about the future of the building. The anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro suggested it should be kept a ruin that preserves in the future the history of its own destruction. His idea should be taken seriously into consideration. The loss is incalculable, and cannot be recuperated. The empty façade should be kept a powerful presence of the past and the future we have dissipated. But I also think that initiatives such as Elena Welper’s should be made more widely known. For, as she beautifully said, the task at hand is not only the reconstruction of the archive, but also of ourselves.

Published: 04 Oct 2018  Categories: Archaeology, Cultural Studies, History, Visual and Material Culture

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Luciana Villas Bôas teaches English and Comparative Literature at the Department of Anglo-Germanic Languages at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She is the author of Wilde Beschriftungen. Brasiliens historische Semantik in der Frühen Neuzeit (2017) and of several articles on early modern travel literature, ethnography and intellectual history. She has also done several translations from German into Portuguese, such as Reinhart Kosellck’s Critique and Crisis and Habermas’s Divided West.