History in ruins at Brazil’s national museum, a major link to its African cultural heritage

On 2 September, Brazil suffered a devastating loss to its scientific and cultural history. Its National Museum, located near the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, caught fire at about 7:30pm, quickly burning millions of irreplaceable artifacts, specimens, and two hundred years of work almost to rubble in just a few hours.

Among its collection were Egyptian and Greco-Roman artifacts, dinosaurs and other fossils, and invaluable historical objects, including artwork, tools, weapons, and musical instruments from Brazil’s indigenous people. It was also home to the mummified bodies of a woman and two children thought to have lived 600 years before Europeans arrived in the country. It was a collection considered “fundamental to world history,” said the museum’s director, Paulo Knauss, who called the inferno “a pitiful tragedy.”

The museum’s archeological collection also housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It also had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus and an impressive collection of mummies from Ancient Egypt—including the coffin of Sha-Amun-In-Su, a singer priestess who lived in Egypt around 800 BC. It also contained audio recordings of indigenous languages dating back to 1958—some of which are no longer spoken, and about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to pre colonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.

Drone view of Rio de Janeiro’s treasured National Museum, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. Photo: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images)

The impact of this loss on a nation only recognising the influence of the Transatlantic slave trade and African cultures in the past 20 years is unprecedented. Although the term Afro-Brazilians does not have widespread use in Brazil, where social constructs and classifications have been based on appearance; many members of the negro or preto(“black“) and multiracial Brazilians, or pardos, have a range of degree of African ancestry. 

Brazil imported more enslaved people than anywhere else in the Americas and slavery lasted longer there than anywhere else in the region. As with all great migrations, the Africans that arrived in Brazil not only brought over their strength and beauty but also their music and cultural traditions which inevitably blended with the Portuguese and Amerindian customs, to produce a unique cultural manifestation of its own.

Brazil’s National Museum, the largest natural-history museum in Latin America, and one of the oldest—founded in 1818 by King João VI, and moved to its current location in 1892—recorded huge losses of around 20 million objects from the fields of natural history and archaeology. But apart from the scientific losses, the center specialized in indigenous languages and the various dialects of Brazilian Portuguese, with a collection of text, sound and visual materials stored in a section formally created in 2004.

Cultural norms which could be researched to discover links between Brazilian and African culture such as that discovered by Nigerian chef Ozoz Sokoh in the similarities between Brazil’s acarajé and Nigeria’s akara, may now prove to be more difficult.

Books on linguistic theory, indigenous education, anthropology, archaeology, literature and philosophy are already available online. But the tapes, CDs, photos, negatives and videos that gave researchers direct access to primary data on these languages, including narrative discourse, songs and vocabularies, were all probably destroyed in the fire. Feather art and ceramics from the Karaja people, of which there are only about 3,000 left in central Brazil, were displayed in the museum. Rarer artefacts included the throne of the African king Adandozan, donated by the ambassadors of the king to the regent prince Dom João in 1811.

Firefighters from seven companies worked through the night. Photo: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

The documentation of visual images, dance, music, oral accounts, museum exhibitions, artifacts, monuments, festivals, and others forms of commemoration serve to illuminate and preserve the social and cultural dynamics of people subject to change. The subject of African heritage propelled by the Atlantic slave trade legacy in the South Atlantic region has remained relatively absent from the public historical landscape of Brazil. 

According to African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World by Ana Lucia Araujo, African art and material culture also continued to be excluded from museums and other official institutions, or confined to only certain places dedicated to popular culture and associated with the religious sphere.

For most people, the idea of Black History month is relegated to the African-American experience in the United States. Today, other than Nigeria, the largest population of African descent is in Brazil, estimated at 90 million people. Understanding of the place of African heritage and slavery in the official history and public memory of Brazil are topics that remain understudied and the loss of cultural documents is a huge blow to research.

The losses are “incalculable to Brazil,” said Michel Temer, the country’s president, on Twitter. “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost.”

For the past few decades, funding problems, along with an aging building, put the museum in jeopardy. At one point, the museum was forced to crowdfund money to repair the termite-damaged base of one of its grandest mounted dinosaurs fossils. In addition, the museum building had no sprinkler system, which put the building and all of its exhibits at risk of fire.

“This was an announced tragedy that is the result of years of budget cuts,” said historian Ana Lucia Araujo on Twitter. “Other tragedies like this can happen any time in numerous museums, libraries, and archives in Brazil.”

Most of the exhibits are thought to have been destroyed; one of the few items likely to survive is a meteorite found in 1784. and a library of 500,000 books – including works dating back to the days of the Portuguese empire – which was kept in a separate annex, according to The Guardian. Some of the pieces that never made it out include: a 12,000-year-old human skull, named ‘Luzia,’ one of the oldest human fossils ever discovered in the Americas, a collection of 5 million butterflies and other insects—some of which are likely extinct.

A meteorite on exhibit at the National Museum is seen through a door after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Photo: AP/Leo Correa

“This catastrophe… is like a lobotomy in Brazilian memory,” said presidential candidate Marina Silva. The Globo newspaper wrote in an editorial published Tuesday: “The size of the catastrophe is vast: It struck the national memory, through the loss of the important historical collection; it affected the sciences, interrupting research; and it represents a cultural loss impossible to quantify. We only know that it is enormous.”

On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered at the museum’s gates, calling for authorities to reveal the extent of the damage and promise to rebuild. According to the Associated Press’ Peter Prengaman and Sarah DiLorenzo, when the protesters attempted to see the damage, police held them back using pepper spray, tear gas and batons.

The institution had recently secured approval for nearly $5 million for a planned renovation, including an upgrade of the fire-prevention system, but the money had not yet been disbursed. Officials have now begun talking about reconstructing the museum, while students have asked people to email them with photos of the collections, in the hopes of recovering whatever information they can. But these measures will do little to replace the irreplaceable.

The national development bank announced Tuesday that it would make $6 million available for museums looking to upgrade their security or fire-prevention plans. UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, had offered financial and technical assistance. French and Egyptian officials also have offered help.