What our culture lost in Brazil’s National Museum fire
On September 3, Brazil's National Museum caught on fire. Firemen tried to fight the fire, and researchers and museum staff tried to save what they could with their bare hands, but the flames ultimately took down the 200-year-old building containing 20 million items in its archives. The museum's archive included Egyptian, African, and Greco-Roman artifacts, a large biological collection, and what was probably the most important archive of Brazil’s indigenous people's history. Luzia, the oldest fossil of an inhabitant of the American continent ever found, which shaped knowledge about the first settlements of the Americas, was lost.
The National Museum was the first place I worked. I went to a good public high school that had a partnership with the museum that involved selecting some students for an internship there. I worked for a year in the museum's Education Assistance Division, where my job was to guide school groups through the exhibits. At 16 years old, I was given the opportunity to get to know a little bit of everything in that museum and to interact with large groups of kids, who were eager to learn. That experience made me realize that education is a challenge and an adventure, and I decided to pursue a degree in history and become a teacher.
As a historian, a scientist, and an educator, the flames that burned that museum felt like a blade through the gut. That fire didn’t destroy just artifacts, but an important part of Brazilians’ very history and culture. To some people, museums may seem to be just a collection of old things, but others, like me, can hear how these collections speak about the present as well. Artifacts gathered in museums not only provide a way for us to connect to our history and understand where we come from, but are also a key way to critically think about where we are right now. Memory is one of the main things that makes us human, that gives us a sense of community and a sense of ourselves. Memory is also about empathy: The way we deal with our country’s memory, and the memory of the people who built it, says a lot about how we view and treat each other.
The loss was particularly devastating for specific groups of our national population. The National Museum’s archive included documentation of the native peoples in Brazil, some of which have been decimated. Before Portuguese colonization, Brazil had an indigenous population of at least 2 million individuals, whereas nowadays around 900,000 people identify themselves as “índios.” The colonization process in Brazil was marked by extreme violence and war, but also by cultural and religious domination. The result is that the current, popular perception of native people is that they existed in the past as “folklore” or “ancient history.” The National Museum’s exhibition played an important role in undoing this perception, as it showed the cultural and religious diversity of indigenous peoples not only in the past, but currently.
The museum also included artifacts from the different African ethnicities that were present in the country, and displayed those peoples’ greatness and value beyond their brutal experiences of slavery.
The museum’s purpose extended beyond the artifacts it contained, too, and served a purpose as a structure itself. The building was surrounded by a huge park that was mostly attended by working-class people in Rio de Janeiro. Kids who would never see the Louvre or the Smithsonian museums could go to their own National Museum; it was open to poor black kids who could look at a Dahomean king's throne and see themselves as royals. It was a place that allowed them to learn that the first known inhabitant of the Americas was a black woman. They could see dinosaurs and touch a meteorite. It was a magical door to science, through which a number of kids could walk through and dream about being scientists, historians, and archeologists.
What happened to this museum wasn't a mere accident, but the result of a serious lack of financial investment and questionable preservation policies. As famous Brazilian anthropologist and educator Darcy Ribeiro used to say, the crisis of education in Brazil is not a crisis, it’s a political project. Education is the most important way of empowering minorities because it allows them to understand society’s mechanisms and to fight for their rightful place in it. Education is the way to achieve autonomy and dignity, and museums and cultural apparatuses represent those achievements. Brazil is a great country, but its social inequalities are also great. The National Museum’s fire is an enormous tragedy and should serve as a reminder of how important it is for our country to maintain and value institutions that question the social inequalities in our country.
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