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A new window on the sertão

The foundation created by archaeologist Niède Guidon is set to inaugurate its Museum of Nature in December at Serra da Capivara National Park in Piauí

View of the Museum of Nature building under construction, which is scheduled to be inaugurated on December 18

Léo Ramos Chaves

In 2003, archaeologist Niède Guidon began to think about establishing a second museum for the nonprofit entity she created and has presided over since 1986, the American Man Museum Foundation (FUMDHAM). Located in São Raimundo Nonato, in southern Piauí State, some 500 kilometers from its capital, Teresina, FUMDHAM is close to the municipality’s center, on the outskirts of Serra da Capivara National Park. Considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is home to more than 1,200 prehistoric sites with cave paintings dating from 4,000 to (reportedly) 50,000 years old. During the past four decades, researchers from the foundation and partner universities and institutions have found over half a million items of archaeological and paleontological interest within the conservation area and neighboring lands. They range from human bones and fragments of chipped stone and ceramics, to fossils of megafauna, like giant sloths, mastodons, and the ancestors of modern-day armadillos. A fraction of this collection, related exclusively to the human presence during the region’s prehistory, is on display at the American Man Museum, which operates in a building adjacent to the foundation’s headquarters.

One of the most important archaeological finds from the Capivara mountain range is the skull of an individual nicknamed Zuzu (it’s unknown if the person was a man or a woman), who lived there about 10,000 years ago. Zuzu is the first piece visitors encounter upon entering the American Man Museum. When the museum’s 600-square-meter space became restrictive in the face of its growing local collections, Guidon and her colleagues at FUMDHAM decided to start a project to build another exhibition space, focusing on the history of the geology, climate, and animals—especially those of the remote past—from that part of the semiarid northeastern region. Thus was launched the idea for ​​the Museum of Nature, which, 14 years and many setbacks later, is to be inaugurated on December 18 on lands adjacent to the park, in the municipality of Coronel José Dias, about 30 kilometers from São Raimundo Nonato.

The national context in which science museums struggle to survive, and the current circumstances of FUMDHAM, whose budget and staffing have shrunk in recent years, are not the most auspicious for starting a project of this scope. Still, Guidon didn’t hesitate to finally move the idea forward when, in mid-2017, the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) approved R$13.7 million for building the new museum edifice and mounting the exhibition. Just over R$8 million is being invested in engineering and construction, and about R$5 million in producing the exhibits, which are the responsibility of Magnetoscópio, the company which was behind creating the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo. “I don’t know if I would start a project like this today,” admits the 85-year-old archaeologist, who plans to step down as director of the foundation after the Museum of Nature opens (see interview on page 58). “But there was no way not to move on it once the funds came through.”

Léo Ramos Chaves Fossils of giant sloths from the FUMDHAM collectionLéo Ramos Chaves

The construction of the museum, whose structure is reminiscent of a snail shell, began at the end of June of last year. When Pesquisa FAPESP visited the construction site in mid-September 2018, the building structure itself was complete, but with nothing yet mounted inside the premises. Workers had begun the finish work and painting. “We’re on schedule,” says Elizabete Buco, the FUMDHAM architect who designed the museum project in consultation with A. Dell’Agnese Arquitetos Associados, from the city of São Paulo. Originally from São Paulo herself, Buco left the metropolis more than two decades ago and moved to São Raimundo Nonato, which has a population of about 30,000, where she has worked for the foundation ever since.

Thematic galleries
Just inside the entrance, Museum of Nature visitors will start up a circular walkway that spirals gradually along the inside of the structure. By the time the building opens, this space will have been divided into 12 galleries with different themes. Some rooms will address more general topics, such as the origin of the universe or the movement of tectonic plates. Others will be focused on the region’s characteristics and paleontological finds, such as the plants and animals that lived in the Caatinga (semiarid scrublands) 10,000 years ago, and highlighting parts of the rich collection of local megafauna fossils deposited in the FUMDHAM. Near the building’s exit, a replica of a giant sloth, perhaps the megafauna with the most fossil records in the foundation’s collections, will give a life-size impression of ​​the magnificence of these now-extinct creatures.

The total constructed area of ​​the new museum is four thousand square meters, 1,700 of which are allotted to exhibits, close to three times larger than the American Man Museum. The original project provided for an even bigger space, which had to be scaled down for financial reasons, and some external areas will be left without some finishing touches as well, to perhaps be installed in the future. “The money disbursed last year, because of various constraints, didn’t take into account the inflationary losses that have occurred since 2013, when the BNDES signed the contract with us,” explains Buco.

Léo Ramos Chaves Construction inside the new museumLéo Ramos Chaves

The location where the museum is being built is close to the park’s visitor center, and to a factory which produces handmade ceramics featuring designs inspired by the region’s cave paintings. From São Raimundo Nonato, there is easy access by a paved road that leads close to the museum’s entrance. From there it’s necessary to cross a short stretch of land to the future parking lot around the museum. It’s positioned strategically on a gentle rise, from which one has a beautiful panoramic view of the great walls forming the base of the Serra da Capivara, surrounded by the vegetation of the Caatinga on the plains below. The landscape, primitive and grand, fills the dining hall windows at the future restaurant planned to operate in the exhibition building. It’s not yet known who will run the restaurant, but this is just one of the issues that FUMDHAM will have to manage by the time the museum is inaugurated.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to stimulate tourism in the region, which is beautiful and wild, and would be a big attraction in any part of the world. But getting to São Raimundo Nonato isn’t easy. The nearest city with commercial flights is Petrolina, in the neighboring state of Pernambuco, some 300 kilometers distant, 40 of which are dirt road. Making the journey by car usually takes five hours. By bus, it takes six hours and there is only one bus per day connecting the two cities. “Before releasing the funds, the BNDES wanted to ensure that the Museum of Nature wouldn’t turn into a white elephant,” explains Rosa Trakalo, FUMDHAM’s project coordinator, who is also engaged with receiving tourists to the region. “They always wanted to have an international airport here to facilitate access.”

Airport yes, flights, no
In October 2015, after nearly two decades of construction and R$20 million in investment, the airport, with an impressive lobby, was inaugurated. Today it exists behind closed doors. With the exception of small private aircraft, there are no commercial airlines with flights to the airport. Several justifications have already been given for its lack of use: the runway is too short, there is no fuel station to supply aircraft, and there is a lack of tourist demand. According to Trakalo, who followed Guidon decades ago and moved to southern Piauí (from Uruguay), the number of tourists visiting the park varies between 16,000 and 20,000 per year. “But if demand does grow very much, we don’t have a good hotel network to accommodate people,” she admits.

Léo Ramos Chaves The skull of Zuzu, who lived 10,000 years ago, is viewed by students visiting the American Man MuseumLéo Ramos Chaves

The Museum of Nature is one more bet to try to stimulate tourism in the region. In order to be self-sustaining financially, its organizers cannot make the wrong administrative decisions, so the entrance fee and working hours at the new institution are the subject of internal debate at FUMDHAM. The full-price entrance fee to the American Man Museum, which operates at the foundation’s headquarters, costs R$20 per person, while students with ID pay half price. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, access is free for public school students. As it is more spectacular, the Museum of Nature should charge a higher entry fee. “The price will depend on the number of employees we have and the number of days and hours we’re open,” explains Buco. One possibility is that the museum will only open for six hours a day, so there would only be one shift, and it wouldn’t be necessary to hire more than one employee for each job.

The issue of safety is another concern. There is no running water at the Museum of Nature’s location. A reservoir with a 500,000-liter capacity is being built next to the building and two hydrants will be connected to the well. “The visitor center at Serra da Capivara National Park has a reservoir of 200,000 liters, which covers the annual consumption there,” Rosa observes. “We think half a million gallons will be enough for the museum.” These reservoirs rely on the rainy months from October through April to maintain their water supply. By the time it begins operating the museum must have a functioning fire alarm system.

Soon, the Serra da Capivara will appear on televisions around the world. But it won’t be exclusively because of its cave paintings or museums of archaeology and natural history. A large European television network is producing a documentary about the region’s Capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus), which were already using stone fragments 700 years ago, to crack cashew nuts and extract their edible parts. “This is the first known use of tools found at an ‘archaeological’ site produced by monkeys,” says biologist Tiago Falótico of the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo (IP-USP), one of the authors of the study on these primates, who is advising the onsite documentary team. Who knows, with the new museum and the publicity generated by the TV program about these monkeys, interest in the Serra da Capivara may increase.