Keepers of history

Approaching their 120th anniversaries, the history and geography institutes of São Paulo and Bahia try to find their role in the 21st century

Exposition of maps depicting the municipalities of Bahia receives visitors in 1940. The map collection is now available in digitized form

IGHB Map exhibit depicting the municipalities of Bahia receives visitors in 1940. The map collection is now available in digitized formIGHB

Back in the 19th century, when most of Brazil’s history and geography institutes were created, no single institution was responsible for compiling the knowledge of the time, encouraging cultural debate, and archiving the history of the country’s cities and states. There were some medical and law schools and a few natural history museums and academies. History and geography institutes, known as IHGs, were meeting grounds where Brazil’s intellectual and commercial elite could bring in news from abroad and discuss it, give presentations about cultural or scientific studies, and accept personal collections of items donated by public figures.  Two such institutes are celebrating their 120th anniversaries in 2014 in May and November, respectively: the Geography and History Institute of Bahia (IGHB) and its equivalent in the state of São Paulo (IGHSP). With the plethora of universities, heritage protection entities, and cultural memory and dissemination centers available today, it is often asked what role these centuries-old institutions might have in the 21st century.

“The institutes should respond to contemporary challenges by producing knowledge, contributing to its dissemination, putting together collections, building memories and identities, and guiding public policy,” says Arno Wehling, former president of Gama Filho University and current chairman of the Brazilian History and Geography Institute (IHGB), the first in the country, founded in 1838 in Rio de Janeiro. “But our role has to be very clear: we are different from academic institutions that are strictly professional, such as the universities.” According to Wehling, the central roles of Brazil’s 23 state and 52 municipal IHGs are to welcome professors (regardless of university researcher status), essayists, and collectors; to edit scientific texts; and to consolidate, catalog and expand their collections, making themselves into document reference centers.

Euclides da Cunha (left) read the first part of Os sertões at the IHGSP, where he was a member

ReproductionEuclides da Cunha read the first part of Os sertões at the IHGSP, where he was a memberReproduction

But they should avoid becoming too stiff, as if stuck in the past, warns IGHB chairperson Consuelo Pondé de Sena. “In Bahia, we do everything the other institutes do, but we always try to go one step further by offering courses and lectures about a wide variety of cultural topics,” she says. She mentions a meeting held on April 30, 2014 to discuss the history and fate of the Episcopal Palace in the city of Salvador, and to offer a mini-course about celebrated samba singer and songwriter Dorival Caymmi in honor of what would have been his one hundredth birthday. The IGHB – known as “the House of Bahia” – organizes the festivities for the state’s Independence Day, celebrated as July 2, 1823. Although Brazil’s independence was officially won on September 7, 1822, parts of the country were still occupied by Portuguese troops at the time. Bahia’s victory over Portugal almost a year later helped finalize the process.

“This historical aspect helps bring a traditional institution closer to the public that participates in the activities,” explains attorney and professor Edivaldo Boaventura, a member of IGHB. Former state governor Roberto Santos, the institute’s honorary chairman, calls to mind its rich collection. “We have the most complete collection of periodicals in Brazil and an extremely valuable archive that is consulted by numerous researchers, who find here an exceptional resource from which to prepare original academic works written for a variety of purposes,” he says.

Theodoro Sampaio, born in Bahia, was an active member of the IHGs in Bahia and São Paulo

ReproductionTheodoro Sampaio, born in Bahia, was an active member of the IHGs in Bahia and São PauloReproduction

Public entities can also benefit from the archives. The institute’s maps and charts tell the story of how the 417 cities of Bahia State were formed.  In 1940, the IGHB hosted an exhibition of 150 maps. Now with additional maps in digital format, the archive will become available online.

The institute’s counterpart in the state of São Paulo is more formal and less inclined to reach out to the public. The IHGSP has always offered information about the city’s history, institutions, and most influential characters. Engineer and writer Euclides da Cunha, for example, held a public reading of the texts that would become the first part of Os sertões (Rebellion in the backlands) at the institute in 1898. “We are the main keeper of São Paulo’s records, and we help explain some of the topics that remain obscure about its history,” says chairperson Nelly Candeias.

One such topic is the origin of the Lapa neighborhood. Professor José Carlos de Barros Lima, a member of IHGSP and owner of the Santo Ivo Institute school, proved that the neighborhood was created in 1590 and not in 1745, as was previously believed. “I researched the writings of Theodoro Sampaio that are available at the institute, as well as the documents from what was then the Municipal Council of the Village of São Paulo. That is how I established the new date, which was confirmed by professional historians,” says Barros Lima. The IHGSP’s collection is currently undergoing restoration and digitization at the São Paulo State Public Archives.