In a heap of dying embers in Brazil’s National Museum lies the past

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on May 31, 2021

Burned-out: An electrical malfunction in an air conditioner triggered a blaze in the museum that reached temperatures near 1,000 degrees Celsius, hot enough to crack stone   -  REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES

As Brazilians try to piece back the heritage gutted in the National Museum fire a year ago, stories of survival and innovation emerge alongside tales of irretrievable loss

A year ago, a fire swept through Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. The museum held an enormous collection of over 20 million objects, ranging from the fossils of prehistoric animals and humans to the finery of 19th century European and African royalty to the only surviving recordings of hundreds of indigenous native languages in Brazil. Researchers have only recovered around 20,000 pieces from the collection. The loss of the museum represents not only a staggering blow to the material history of Brazil, but also a psychic, even spiritual wound: The gutting of the heritage of a nation.

The cause of the fire is a very modern tale of institutional neglect. The museum, which is publicly administered, had long been short on funds. An electrical malfunction in an air-conditioner unit triggered the blaze, which reached temperatures near 1,000 degrees Celsius, hot enough to crack stone.

When firefighters reached the 200-year-old edifice of the museum — a grand palace that once housed the Portuguese royal family — they discovered that there was no water in any of the hydrants. By the time they sourced water from a nearby lake, whole floors of the museum had collapsed and the building was a smouldering ruin.

I present a radio series for the BBC called Museum of Lost Objects, which explores the loss of cultural heritage through vivid personal stories. My producer Maryam Maruf and I conceived of the programme as a kind of virtual, aural museum, in which destroyed or looted artefacts might be recreated, their histories retold. Our first season, in 2016, charted the destruction of ancient structures and treasures in Iraq and Syria. The second season took place in India and Pakistan. The third instalment of the series, which opens this week, explores a real-life “museum of lost objects”, Rio’s burnt-out National Museum.

I would encourage readers to listen to the show (it is available online in its entirety through the BBC website), as it takes up many of the themes that I often discuss in these pages: The uses and misuses of history, the inescapable connections between the past and the present, the ways in which individuals can find meaning in great tides of historical change.

We experienced many poignant moments while delving into the history of the museum and its importance to people today. Take, for example, Sergio Azevedo, a palaeontologist and former director of the museum, who has spent the last year digging through the rubble. Not much survived, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost. Using ash from the museum site, Azevedo makes replicas of destroyed objects with a 3D printer. Every printed object contains the museum itself, traces of its structure and its contents. “It’s another way of keeping the museum alive,” he told Maruf, “of keeping the objects alive.”

I was moved by the stories of the researchers of indigenous languages attached to the museum. No other collection in Brazil boasted this trove of recordings of native languages. The museum was not just a cabinet of curiosities; it was an active centre for research for anthropologists, linguists, and other scholars. Its old recordings, some of which were on early 20th century wax cylinders, were in many cases the only surviving evidence of now-extinct languages of native peoples. The existence of these recordings promised the possibility of cultural revival.

Bernabeu Tikuna, a student at the museum’s linguistics department, refused to describe a disappeared indigenous language as “extinct” or “dead.” He insisted that such languages were just “sleeping,” waiting to be woken up. But the destruction of the archive of recordings scuppered that possibility for many tongues; according to Tonico Benitez, an indigenous scholar, the fire had the effect of yet another “genocide” perpetrated against native peoples.

In my view, the most powerful legacy of the museum is its complicated relationship to Brazil’s history of slavery. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century by Rio’s wealthiest slave merchant, who then donated his palace to house the Portuguese royal family. Slave labour underwrote everything in Rio, a fact poorly remembered in Brazil, where blacks remain marginalised and racial hierarchies are stark. We spoke with a descendant of the Portuguese royal family, who waxed nostalgic about his love for the collection in his old family home, how he admired the skeletons of dinosaurs in halls haunted by his ancestors. But we also spoke with a black historian, Monica Lima, whose ancestor Ilaria was a slave in Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century. Her thoughts capture how a monument to the grandeur of the elite can be re-envisioned by the once-oppressed. “I can imagine Ilaria walking through the streets of Rio,” Lima said. “Ilaria walking into the palace of the National Museum. And I think about me, after all these decades. I think that I’m talking with my past... I am part of Ilaria’s story. I’m part of her... I carry her on me. And so, when I enter the museum, I feel Ilaria inside me, and I tell Ilaria, ‘We are here. We are not defeated. We are surviving.’”

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction


Published on September 06, 2019

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor