President’s Message for Summer 2018
Memory is the essence of LAFF. We share the individual and collective memories of our time at the Foundation. We link them in multiple ways to national and global trends and events and compensate the loss of once tangible connections to individuals and institutions that were central to our professional, and sometimes personal, lives.
I felt this starkly on the night of September 2 when a disastrous fire devoured the contents of Brazil’s National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
I recalled the first time I entered the Museum in 1961, as a young Fulbright Fellow on a year’s fellowship to study at first hand the history of a Brazil that I had known only remotely in graduate school. To my inexperienced eye, the declining majesty of the former Imperial Palace that housed the Museum faded as backdrop to its extraordinary collections of natural history, paleontology, archeology and cultural anthropology. That and subsequent visits awakened career interests that I hadn’t as yet begun to contemplate.
Little did I imagine then that, 17 years later, as a full-fledged anthropologist–thanks to various Foundation-related fellowships–I would be working in the Rio office, recommending funding to graduate programs in the social sciences and economics at Brazilian universities and teaching a course on peasant societies at the Museum’s doctoral program in anthropology, then the premier institution of its kind in Brazil. Sadly, the institutional neglect that I witnessed then only deepened over the past 40 years, taking its toll on infrastructure, collections, research and staff morale.
The fire that occurred on September 2, just two months after a muted celebration of the museum’s two-hundredth anniversary, obliterated the nation’s ethno-scientific history, material culture and tangible memory. Housed in the Nineteenth Century residence of Brazil’s royal family, the Museum was the repository of Brazil’s national patrimony.
In addition to the restored residence of the Emperor and his family, the most extensive archive in Latin America included: Dom Pedro II’s library of rare manuscripts and books, and his collection of Egyptology; copious descriptions of botanica and mineralogy, and the five-ton Bendegó, among the largest meteorites to have fallen in the western hemisphere; extensive butterfly and entomological specimens; the dinosaur Maxakalisaurus tapai, painstakingly reconstructed over a ten-year period; Lúzia, the oldest human fossil in the New World; indigenous skeletal remains and artifacts; ethnographic and linguistic studies and photographs of Brazil’s indigenous tribes, many now extinct, with a map of their original locations; and a priceless record of Brazil’s African Heritage, among other national treasures.
Only Bendegó remains, at the main entrance to a once impressive structure, now reduced to blackened walls and ashes.
While the origin of the fire is being investigated, recriminations have inevitably begun, most faulting government indifference. The last presidential visit to the nation’s repository occurred in 1958! Despite an anniversary appeal from the Museum’s directors and numerous admonishments regarding the precarious state of the edifice, no preventive steps were taken by the university or the federal government, which bears ultimate responsibility for the nation’s patrimony.
No active sprinkler system existed, nor was there sufficient water pressure in nearby hydrants when firefighters responded to the alarm. Dedicated staff rushed to the Museum to try to save what they could, and waited despairingly for the arrival of water trucks and hoses to pump water from an artificial lagoon, the centerpiece of the Palace’s lush gardens.
While a national lament continues, debate now turns on the question of recovery and restoration, if that is at all possible. National museums throughout the world have responded with messages of solidarity and some with offers of contributions, but most observers believe the damage is irreparable. The archives were neither digitized nor backed up with copies, a particularly painful truth for indigenous Brazilian scholars for whom the Museum’s records were the primary source for the study of tribes exterminated in the course of Brazil’s landgrab history.
One leading Brazilian anthropologist suggested the building remain a ruin, a monument to Brazil’s failure to respect its historic patrimony. Reflecting on last year’s opening of Rio’s Museo do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), another colleague questioned: “How can you have a museum of the future in a country that has obliterated its past?”
Some, like BrazilFoundation’s president, are decrying the lack of private philanthropy in support of the infrastructure required to sustain public institutions, as well as the near total reliance of Brazilians on public funding, even when an unprecedented economic crisis engendered ever more draconian cutbacks in institutional support.
No appeal to the civic spirit that lends itself to public-private collaboration was made in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration.
Memory, of course, is an important antidote to the destruction of a material past. It’s the link that LAFF provides to our own tangible history at the Foundation. It’s a thread that those of us who worked in Brazil, and visited and supported the Museum, can draw on to visualize more than charred walls and Bendegó. The Museum fire reminds us of the need to record our memories. Sometimes they are all that remain.