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Brother in the North

Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará reaches 152nd anniversary with 4.5 million items preserved, but few protected

Miss Marajó, cremation urn found in the 1950s by American archaeologist Betty Meggers

Irene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC

Every morning Suzana Primo dos Santos scans the bookshelves of the room that houses close to 15,000 objects of 120 indigenous peoples of the Amazon to verify if everything is in order. She takes her time looking at the pieces and, in silence, wishes them all a good day. This is her way of honoring and respecting the various groups, some of which have already disappeared, and which are represented by masks, head ornaments, rattles, baskets, bows, arrows, and indigenous weapons that comprise the ethnographic archive of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará (MPEG). Established in 1866 in Belém, Pará, it is the oldest scientific institution in the northern region of the country. “This is how I communicate with what is visible and what is invisible,” she notes. Born in a Karipuna village in the municipality of Oiapoque, where Amapá borders French Guiana, dos Santos lived with her people until the age of 17, and she learned from her mother how to create graphic images on gourds used for the production and consumption of food and beverages. She moved to Belém in the 1970s to complete high school and, later, to study sociology. In 1987, she discovered the collection of artifacts of indigenous peoples and other groups in the Amazon during an undergraduate work placement, and she never left. During a visit to the collection on the morning of September 20, dos Santos gently opened the drawers and noted each piece, remembering the people who had produced it and its place of origin. Wrapped in chemically inert foam to protect them from deterioration, the items are organized by raw material and by use. Baskets and other straw implements in one section, feather adornments in the next, and bows, arrows, and other weapons further along. “Each piece is as fragile as a child,” says dos Santos, who added rattles, gourds, and necklaces of her people to the collection.

In the big room of almost 300 square meters, the temperature and relative humidity are controlled by a system of extractor fans, suction fans, and dehumidifiers. The system was designed in the early 2000s by an engineer with the Getty Conservation Institute in the United States and who is specialized in the preservation of works of art. On the opposite side of the entrance, guarded by a password-protected glass door and another fire door, a vestment more than two meters high stands majestically: it is a mask in the form of an anteater, woven by the Kayapó Indians at the museum’s own Research Campus. It is in this group of buildings constructed between 1980 and 2000, on the far eastern side of Belém and far from the eyes of visitors, that you can find precious items from this and 19 other collections of plants, animals, fossils, rocks, rare books, and archaeological artifacts of the second oldest museum of natural history in the country. They comprise an archive of close to 4.5 million objects, a number surpassed only by that of the National Museum prior to the fire.

Next to the anteater mask, a cabinet protected by glass exhibits African statues and masks made of straw, as well as feathers and yarns of the Wayana people of northern Pará. There are even objects of the Tikuna, Kanela, and Apinajé peoples and other ethnic groups, collected during expeditions in the nineteenth century, such as that of the French explorer Henri Coudreau (1859–1899) or, decades later, by the German anthropologist Curt Nimuendajú (1883–1945), in whose memory the museum’s ethnographic reserve is named. Almost 700 Kayapó items were sold by missionary priests to Emílio Goeldi (1859–1917) himself, the Swiss zoologist who directed the then-called Museum of Pará from 1894 to 1907 and reorganized the casts of the National Museum, transforming it into a center for the study of natural history and Amazonian ethnography.

“Many groups see the museum as their home,” says anthropologist Lúcia Hussak van Velthem, curator of the ethnographic archive for MPEG. “They make a point of being represented here through their objects.” Today, the museum is responsible for their care and for the production of scientific knowledge related to the items. Ownership, however, is shared among the groups who produced them. The indians can visit the archive, touch the objects, and register them through photos and videos. They also show researchers the right way to use them and package them for storage in the technical reserve.

Irene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC Specimens of the bird collection, the third largest in the countryIrene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC

In the hallway of the ethnographic archive, a wood door and a steel door, locked with a padlock, protect other precious items. In the room lined with fire-retardant material, a fireproof vault safeguards magnetic tapes with records of 74 indigenous languages (and some Creole languages) of the almost 180 languages spoken in the Amazon. Construction of the archive began in the 1980s, under the direction of American linguist Denny Moore, who trained Brazilian students in Amazonian fieldwork and encouraged them to do graduate studies abroad. Since then, the collection has grown slowly with recordings made by the Goeldi team and by researchers from Brazil and around the world who are associated with the museum and are mandated by the National Indian Foundation to store a copy of their audiovisual recordings in a Brazilian scientific institution.

Joshua Birchall, a young Brazilian-American linguist and researcher for the museum, helped organize and digitize the archive’s collections in recent years. Two complete copies are on the servers of the Research Campus—one in the room where Birchall works and the other in a distant building. There is also a copy of part of the material at the Native Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro, as well as in foreign research centers, such as the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Holland, or the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme in the United Kingdom. While access to the material is restricted—only possible through authorization and with a research objective—there was criticism when MPEG decided to store copies in other institutions. “The intention is to preserve data, but Brazilian colleagues said that we were giving the material to foreigners,” says Birchall, who works with indigenous peoples from Rondônia and who recorded between 2009 and 2012 the mythology of the Oro Win, whose language is spoken fluently by six people.

Archaeological and present-day indigenous artifacts represent 12,000 years of human existence in the Amazon

Miss Marajó
The story of the recent occupation of the Amazon, told by objects and languages of today’s native peoples, is completed with signs of human presence that date back much further, as indicated by archaeological artifacts. A neighboring building houses close to 2 million fragments and 120,000 whole ceramic pieces, in addition to lithic objects and metal items, which were collected close to the major tributaries of the Amazon. Some of these objects were discovered in one of the oldest human settlements of the region: carved stone artifacts dating back 12,000 years, excavated from the Serra dos Carajás, 800 km south of Belém. They are nearly as old as the lithic material and the rock paintings from the archaeological sites of Monte Alegre, 700 km west of the capital of Pará, and studied since the 1980s by archaeologist Edithe Pereira, of Goeldi.

The sliding cabinets store items from 15 Amazonian regions and of almost 20 different designs. One of the most famous was nicknamed Miss Marajó: a cremation urn close to one meter in height, of the Joanes design and studied by Pereira. With a slightly straighter neck in relation to the base, it is painted red, white, and black, and has markings that resemble human eyes, nose, and mouth. It was found on the island of Marajó in the 1950s by American archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921–2012), and it traveled the world in exhibitions.

Another important object is a stone idol from the region of the Trombetas River which is stored in a locked cabinet. Sculptured from a piece of rock, measuring about 15 cm in height, and forming an “L”, it presents itself as a human, monkey, macaw, or harpy eagle, depending on the angle it is viewed from. “This transformation between human and animal and vice versa integrates the cosmology of many Amerindian peoples,” says archaeologist Helena Lima, curator of the collection.

The archaeological archive took on a new dimension beginning in the 1950s, with expedition funding from the Smithsonian, an American research institute, and in the decades that followed by the National Program for Archaeological Research in the Amazon Basin (PRONAPABA). Its origins, however, date back to the opening of the museum, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with collections made by its founder and twice-director, naturalist and autodidactic ethnologist Domingos Soares Ferreira Penna (1818–1888). Born in Minas Gerais, Ferreira Penna was provincial secretary of Grão-Pará for almost a decade. He worked as a spokesman between the local elite and the president of the province, often recommended by the capital of the Empire.

Irene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC Cerimonial masks of the Wayana people, stored in the Curt Nimuendajú ethnographic archiveIrene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC

The naturalist explored the province and participated in collections of the expedition made by Swiss-American zoologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873). On October 6, 1866, via the newspapers, he called a meeting to create the Philomatic Association, originating at the Paraense Museum. He planned to found an institution that would be the “core of a higher education institution in Pará” and center for the study of natural sciences, relates science historian Maria Margaret Lopes in the book O Brasil descobre a pesquisa científica (Brazil discovers scientific research) (published by UnB, 2009). The museum, which was located in a rented house in 1867 and later in a room in Paraense High School, initially received donations from the National Museum and from naturalists who traveled throughout the Amazon.

Ferreira Penna, himself, gathered archaeological artifacts and identified some from the Sambaqui, among them that of Taperinha, one of the oldest in the country. As it was in a state of disrepair, the museum was shut down between 1888 and 1891. During the first years of the Republic and a golden period for rubber exports, governor and science enthusiast Lauro Sodré decided to rebuild the museum. He invited Goeldi, a former employee of the National Museum, to manage the institution in Pará. “Goeldi gives the museum soul,” recounts science historian Nelson Sanjad, researcher for MPEG and author of the 2010 book A coruja de Minerva (The owl from Minerva; published by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation), which tells the story of the Paraense Museum between 1866 and 1907.

Upon assuming his leadership role, Goeldi criticized the inexperience of his predecessors and got rid of part of the collection that had been poorly preserved—the material from outside the Amazon was sent to other institutions. With both political and financial support, he worked to create a museum focused on the study and promotion of natural history and of Amazonian ethnology, as well as the development of the region.

In 1895, Goeldi opened the first zoo in the Amazon, which today is known as the Zoo Botanical Park and is the museum’s administrative center and exhibition area, located in the central region of the city (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 196). In the same year, he took to Belém the Swiss botanist Jacques Huber (1867–1914), who, amid the exhibition area for the animals, began the development of a garden with close to 500 Amazonian plant species. Huber even began to organize a herbarium for the museum. “He was the first botanist to settle in the Amazon,” says agricultural engineer Ely Gurgel, head of the Botanical Team at MPEG. He began his work identifying Amazonian species and later studied the ecology of the rubber tree, which had economic importance for the region.

Irene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC Specimens of the bird collection, the third largest in the countryIrene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC

Today, with 233,000 plant specimens, the herbarium created by Huber is the third oldest in Brazil—with the older herbariums being that of the National Museum and the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden—and the oldest botanical archive in the Amazon. Its collection is almost exclusively comprised of regional plants and 65% of the specimens have already been scanned such that the image is available online. There are specimens used by Huber to describe new species and close to 600 duplicate plants collected by the British botanist Richard Spruce (1817–1993) during the 15 years he traveled through the Amazon, from the mouth of the Amazon River to the Andes. Part of Spruce’s original collection was destroyed in England during World War II.

“The museum collections are not always very large, but are valuable as they are specialized and they contain a lot of collective scientific information, such as site and date of the collection,” explains Sanjad. “Goeldi said he didn’t want collections from everywhere, but rather the best of the Amazon.”

One of them is of birds, the second oldest and third largest in the country. “With almost 80,000 specimens, it is the largest Amazonian bird collection in the world,” says its curator and ornithologist Alexandre Aleixo. In a study published in 2017 in the Brazilian Ornithology Journal, the MPEG archive was considered of highest value among the 56 museums evaluated in the country, and it was the most referenced in international publications. The other important collection is that of entomology, initiated by Austrian entomologist and botanist Adolpho Ducke (1876–1959), who was recruited by Goeldi. The collection has 1.5 million insect specimens of a yet unknown number of species. “We have digitized data of more than 300,000 specimens that will become available to the public,” says biologist Cléverson dos Santos, a researcher at the museum.

Irene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC Historical building houses exhibitions in the Zoo Botanical Park in the central region of BelémIrene Almeida/MPEG/MCTIC

Until the 1980s, the cramped spaces in the 100-year-old buildings in the Zoo Botanical Park included the research laboratories and MPEG collections, all of which were in substandard condition. Grants from the federal government, as well as from a project connected to the Pilot Program for the Protection of Tropical Forests, allowed for the construction of buildings on the Research Campus and the transfer of the archives and laboratories to them. “It was a project to preserve the museum’s archive,” says anthropologist Marcio Meira, researcher for MPEG.

In addition to these two sites, the museum maintains a scientific station in the Caxiuanã National Forest on the island of Marajó in Pará, as well as a cutting-edge university in the Pantanal in Mato Grosso. The museum’s 23 laboratories are located at the site in the eastern region of Belém, where there are 53 researchers (there were close to 100 in the 1990s), 120 scholarship students, and some of the institution’s 173 servers. The six graduate programs are also based at the Research Campus—one of its own and five in partnership with educational and research institutions in the Amazon—which has already granted degrees to almost 600 master’s and PhD students in the last two decades. In the past five years, Goeldi researchers have published an average of 340 scientific articles per year.

The museum reached its 152nd anniversary on October 6th, with its archives in much better condition, but not yet having achieved desirable levels of security. At the Research Campus, the smoke detection system in the laboratories and collection rooms has not worked properly for a year due to lack of maintenance. Electrical fluctuations burned out the sensors which have often been eaten by ants. Powder and carbon dioxide fire extinguishers are used to protect collections that cannot get wet—for others, fire hydrants are installed and working throughout the campus.

Maintenance of the archive comprises close to one-third of the museum’s annual budget

After the fire at the National Museum, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication (MCTIC), with which MPEG is connected, requested management to provide a report on the institution’s security situation, including the historical collections and buildings, as well as a cost estimate for the installation of more up-to-date firefighting systems.

“Last year, there was a fire outbreak in the power station of the Research Campus,” recounts biologist Ana Luisa Albernaz, who took on the management of the museum in July of this year. There were also termite infiltrations and infestations in the buildings that house the laboratories and collections, in addition to cracks in some of the 100-year-old buildings of the Zoo Botanical Park. If the R$15 million requested for 2019 is approved and received, R$3 million should be designated to the replacement of the Research Campus power station. “In the next few months, we plan to submit projects to the BNDES call for proposals and another to the Ministry of Justice, seeking grants for the restoration of some historical buildings and the improvement of security systems,” confirms Albernaz.

The amount the museum received from MCTIC varied from R$10 million to R$12 million between 2010 and 2016, which was sufficient to outsource both cleaning and security services, as well as pay the water and energy bills (the latter cost R$1.4 million per year). Close to one-third of the grant is spent on maintenance of the collections—something like R$1 per item of the archive per year. In 2017, a 43% cutback dropped the budget to R$7.1 million and exacerbated the situation. In September, linguist and then-director Nilson Gabas Júnior threatened to close the Ferreira Penna Scientific Station in Marajó and the Zoo Botanical Park, which sees 400,000 visitors each year. The people reacted and, on the 17th, a Sunday, thousands of individuals gave a symbolic hug to the park, which helped to recover part of the original budget.