– A lobotomy of Brazil’s collective memory

Having first fired warning shots against protesters, military police in Rio de Janeiro suddenly changed their tack and let the grieving crowds into the ruins of the National Museum.

A representative of the indigenous people of Brazil mourns the loss of the anthropological collections at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Monday 3 September. Photo: Mariana Flor.

The devastating fire that hit the National Museum of Brazil on Sunday continued to rage through the night, leaving behind only a burned-out husk on Monday morning.

When Kunstkritikk arrived at the ravaged palace around lunchtime Monday, the park outside was still shrouded in light smoke. The gates to the museum park had been shut by the military in order to keep the growing crowds at a distance. However, this also meant that many had been shut in inside the museum area, unable to get out. In the streets, chants and slogans were shouted out on loudspeakers. In what seemed to be a ritual act, a small bonfire of twigs and foliage was lit among the mass of people.

Many of those present were representatives of the indigenous people of Brazil, who joined students from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), museum staff, left-wing politicians and others to express their despair and anger in the wake of the disaster.

– So much of the culture of minority groups in Brazil has been lost to us tonight, says Juliana de Assis, a student of literature with the UFRJ, to Kunstkritikk. She and her friends have just gotten the ceremonial bonfire going again after someone tried to put it out with water from a bottle.

– Without this legacy, we have nothing to counteract the European hegemony that hold sway in our culture, she says.

The students are not convinced by the museum’s claims that the buildings were to be fire-proofed in the near future.

– The steadily lower priority assigned to our gradually declining institutions of culture and education is part of deliberate policies. With its austerity policies, the current government shares in the responsibility for the disaster, they believe.

In 2016, the current president of Brazil, Michel Temer, decided to abolish the entire Ministry of Culture, but was forced to rescind this decision in the wake of strong protests from the nation’s pre-eminent artists, reported Reuters. Temer sought to merge the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Education as a cost-cutting exercise.

The National Museum of Brazil was ablaze Sunday night. Photo: Felipe Milanez (CC BY-SA 4.0).

– The government aims to privatise the entire education system. Public-sector education for the Brazilian people is being butchered, say the students. Like several others in the crowd they wear a piece of paper bearing the hashtag #Cultura em LUTO, which can be translated as ‘culture in mourning’. They ask for the rest of the nation’s 3,788 institutions under the auspices of the Brazilian Institute of Museums (Ibram) to be properly cared for so that tragedy won’t strike again.

Fighting the government

A range of official and semi-official responses to the fire were made public over the course of Monday. Reports stated that the entire building was ablaze in just over one hour. No-one was reportedly hurt in the fire, but the material damages and impact on cultural history is ‘like a lobotomy of the Brazilian collective memory’, according to former minister for environmental affairs, Marina Silva, who will run for president in the upcoming elections this October.

The museum’s deputy director, Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, also put the blame at the feet of the government’s lack of funding.

– We have fought the government for years to get sufficient funding to care for what has now been destroyed, he said to the assembled media.

– What I feel now is absolute horror and great anger.

Dias Duarte also said that the museum had just reached an agreement with the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) regarding funding for fire prevention measures. He described the fact that the building caught fire at this particular point as a cruel twist of fate.

200th Anniversary

Spanning three floors, the 1818 palace was home to a collection of more than 20 million artefacts, making it one of the most important museums of natural history and anthropology in South America. The collection included documents from the nation’s imperial period, fossils, minerals, a considerable collection of Egyptian artefacts and a 12,000 year-old skull affectionately known as Luzia – one of the oldest fossils found on the continent. From 1816 to 1821 the building was home to the Portuguese royal family, and the museum collection also included a large collection pertaining to Portuguese cultural history. Since 1946, the museum has been part of the university, UFRJ, meaning that it falls under the auspices of the local education authorities.

Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the building was the oldest museum in Brazil. In a country whose written history only reaches back 500 years, the 200 years represented by the National Museum accounted for a very large part of the people’s collective identity.

Efforts to fully put out the fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro continued Monday. Photo: Tomaz Silva / Agência Brasil.

Years of protest

The National Museum is not the first museum building to have gone up in flames in Rio. In 1978, when the military dictatorship was at the height of its cruelty, 90% of the collection at the city’s Museum of Modern Art was destroyed. The thousands of works lost in the fire included pieces by Picasso, Miró, Dalí and Matisse. This is part of the reason why the fire Sunday night prompts such strong reactions.

The tragedy was exacerbated by a general de-prioritisation of fire prevention measures in Rio in general. The two fire hydrants closest to the museum did not work properly. A spokesman for the local fire department, Roberto Robadey, told The Guardian that this created problems for the efforts to control the fire.

– We lost 30 or 40 minutes due to problems with the hydrants, said Robadey. When the firefighters eventually had to call the organisation responsible for the hydrants for help, they couldn’t reach them. They eventually had to use water from a small lake in the park. One can only guess at how much of the collection might have been saved if the hydrants had been properly maintained.

Even though the government has claimed for years that no funds were available for such maintenance work, it nevertheless allocated resources to the construction and operation of the prestige project Museum of Tomorrow, a local, interactive science museum that opened in 2015. Hence, many see the fire as a result of rampant corruption and the government’s austerity measures.

Bernardo Mello Franco, a well-known columnist for O Globo, described the event as ‘a kind of national suicide’. Mario Gomes, an anthropologist and former president of Brazil’s national organisation for indigenous peoples (FUNAI), wrote a Facebook post comparing the loss of artefacts from Brazil’s indigenous population to the fire of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BCE. He also urged the government to ensure that a new museum is built as soon as possible.

University representatives have been unable to confirm whether the museum was insured or not, but Brazil’s minister for education, Rossieli Soares, has pledged 15 millioner real (approximately 30 million kroner) towards re-establishing the building and the collection, reports the BBC. Among the cultural scene of Rio, this prompts concerns about the budgets for other institutions of culture and education in the city. They brace themselves for further cutbacks made in order to fund the expensive reconstruction work.

After a few hours, something unexpected happens in front of the burned-out museum. The military police, who, clad in full riot gear, had fired warning shots earlier in the day in order to break up the protests, suddenly open the gates, allowing us to walk up the avenue to the wrecked building. There is an unreal feel to the scene. People are holding each other, crying. Military officials are loafing on the lawns. Divided into groups, the crowds are ushered all the way up to the charred husk while firefighters continue to do their work inside. It seems as if the authorities, in a twisted display of transparency, wish to put a lid on the people’s frustrations. A voice on the loudspeakers urges those present to form a circle around the building as a kind of collective hug and loving gesture of support. The students I am with express frustration at this change of direction.

– We are heartbroken, but we don’t need comforting – we need change!

Crowds protesting in front of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday 3 September. Photo: Mariana Flor.