The destruction of Brazil’s National Museum poses a threat to ethnic minorities

A scene from the launch party of the Ilê Omolu Oxum CD in 2005 in front of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. (Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima)
A scene from the launch party of the Ilê Omolu Oxum CD in 2005 in front of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. (Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima)

This week the National Museum of Brazil caught fire and burned to the ground.

The museum was a scientific institution, that contained artifacts and specimens representing the social and biological diversity of Brazil and the world. Many of these items were unique: Extremely rare Egyptian mummies; some of the oldest human remains of the Americas; cultural collections of indigenous peoples (both from today and from pre-conquest times); African treasures, such as the throne of King Adandozan of Dahome, and rare ivory sculptures. There were also collections of coral, fish, mammals, insects, birds, reptiles and plants. Many of these species, such as the blue Spix Macaw (featured in Disney’s animated film “Rio”), are now extinct.

The museum was used by people of all kinds, from students of Rio de Janeiro’s cash-strapped public schools to world-class international scientific researchers. The museum was also a first-rate educational center, teaching graduate students in many disciplines. Its anthropology program, of which I once was director, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and is internationally known for its excellence. The scientific professionals we train can be found in universities and laboratories worldwide.

For Brazil’s indigenous peoples, devastated by colonization and genocide, and for African Brazilians, whose ancestors were brought here in chains, the museum was a concrete link to the past and a resource for building a better future. There, it was believed, indigenous and black cultural history would be protected and employed in the creation of these peoples’ own museums, which are now beginning to proliferate in Brazil. The National Museum and its researchers were seen as allies in these projects, helping traditionally oppressed Brazilian peoples to safeguard their heritage and construct a better world for their children.

Working with indigenous groups, the museum’s anthropology department produced videos and CDs documenting cultural practices and African Brazilian and indigenous religious music. The museum trained indigenous museologists and video producers, working with them to build Native heritage centers, such as the Magüta Museum on the Upper Solimões and the Kuikuro Center at Ipatse Village on the Upper Xingu River. The museum’s ethnologists helped native and African Brazilian groups document, map and survey their lands. Its linguists worked to recover and teach lost or almost-lost tongues.

Most importantly, in its many graduate studies programs, the museum employed affirmative action policies to recruit native and African Brazilians from traditional communities. It trained them as scientists who would work to research and reflect with their peoples on their contemporary communities and how they were constantly and dynamically transforming themselves.

All of this now lies in ashes, leaving us with a cooling ruin and the immense archaeological labor of sifting through the debris to see what is left.

The destruction of the museum and its collections threatens Brazil’s ethnic minorities. We no longer have the audio recordings of hundreds of dialects and languages spoken by native speakers who knew no other tongue — the raw material for the construction of lexicons, dictionaries and indigenous-language textbooks. The vast collections of cultural artifacts, which could be loaned to indigenous and quilombola cultural centers to give children the precious, absolutely irreplaceable sense of their peoples’ historical significance, have been wiped out. But we take immense heart in the messages of support that are pouring in from our indigenous allies.

Ironically, after five years of negotiations, this year the Brazilian National Bank for Social and Economic Development authorized resources to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (to which the museum is institutionally linked) for new buildings to house our technical reserves, laboratories and graduate courses. This would have allowed us to move out of the Imperial Palace that was the heart of our institution, reforming it as a dedicated display area. We had many plans. We were celebrating the museum’s 200th anniversary. We were going to build new structures and rebuild the old. We planned to create safeguards against human and natural disasters. We were working on inaugurating new exhibits.

The fiery holocaust that consumed the National Museum occurred in the midst of Brazil’s polarized presidential campaign. The reactions to the disaster by the current government and many of the candidates for the presidency have laid bare for the world to see the indifference of an administrative elite that understands its roll to be the sale of Brazil to the highest bidder. It is spotlighting, on a global stage, the rancorous idiocy of a large portion of our upper-middle classes, who seem to be incapable of distinguishing a cut-rate Orlando factory outlet from the Louvre or the Smithsonian Institution. It is showcasing, planetwide, the chuckle-headed imbecility of certain local leaders who blandly reassure us that the 20 million objects lost in the flames can be simply and quickly remade.

We now face the task of constructing a new museum, free of internal and external colonial thinking. We must do this for those who are our truest allies: the world’s scientists, who seek to know and preserve the richness and diversity of humanity and the planet, and, most importantly, the indigenous and minority peoples of Brazil and the world, who fight for recognition of their rights and identities. Our native partners are demanding that we talk of reconstruction and not of annihilation. Daily, they remind us of the most important lesson they have learned over the past 526 years: Either we look to the future or we will not exist. We must change, build and grow. This is our response, as scientists and human beings, to the stunningly unequal society that surrounds us, which we will work to transcend.

Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima is a full professor of ethnology at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He was president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology from 2015 to 2016. This piece was translated by Thaddeus Blanchette.

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