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History museums discover treasures in technical archives

Artifacts from Candomblé places of worship and objects from everyday life are on display for the first time, offering renewed interpretations of society

Sculpture of Iemanjá, part of the exhibition being organized by the Museum of the Republic

Oscar Liberal / Museum of the Republic

After being closed for nine years for renovation and restoration works, the Ipiranga Museum, an exhibition space of the Paulista Museum of the University of São Paulo (MP-USP) in the São Paulo State capital, reopened its doors in September inspired by this new proposal, visible for example in the dialogue between monumental productions with everyday objects. The visitor can therefore not only admire the works of Brazilian painter and designer José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior (1850–1899), but also objects from domestic life and the world of work that until recently were kept in the technical reserve. Iconic paintings, such as Partida da monção (Departure of the river expedition) were displayed with the same emphasis given to hammers, sewing machines, meat grinders, plastic pineapple-shaped jugs, blenders, old toys, and knickknacks.

“Elements of material culture, such as everyday objects, are paths for understanding society,” adds historian Vânia Carneiro de Carvalho, from MP-USP. In this proposal, cooking utensils can be used to refer to the figure of the maid and remember the subordinate position of black women in society. In one of the rooms of the MP it is also possible to see French porcelain sculptures from the nineteenth century displayed next to cheap knickknacks, traditionally frowned upon by art historians. “These knickknacks, mostly made by female workers, were a fashion phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s and coexisted with the expansion of modernist furniture in Brazilian homes,” says the historian.

The review of the collections at the Ipiranga Museum, with the aim of making them more socially comprehensive, started to be done around 20 years ago. In 2010, the museum invested R$700,000 to expand its collection. “To organize and exhibit these new collections, we set up a curatorial group composed of employees, undergraduate, master’s, and PhD researchers, and also residents of the neighborhood where the museum is located. Many of them have a conservative profile and did not approve the inclusion of knickknacks and plastic objects in the exhibition,” says Carvalho. According to her, even with this disagreement, by taking the pieces from the technical reserve and putting them in the exhibition halls, the museum provokes the viewer to deepen their understanding of society.

The reflections that supported the development of this collection of the MP started around 30 years ago, with the work of historian Ulpiano Bezerra de Meneses, who ran the institution between 1989 and 1994. “By creating research fronts focused on different social groups, Meneses sought to break from celebratory history that distinguished the administration of historian Afonso d’Escragnolle Taunay [1876–1958], between 1917 and 1946,” she adds. In Carvalho’s opinion, Taunay invested in curatorial proposals that helped construct the idea of a pacified Brazil, proud of the actions of the bandeirantes (pioneers), aimed at erasing or appeasing the role played by populations such as Indigenous and enslaved people. “These characteristics marked the exhibitions until 1990. Based on the works developed since the Meneses administration, we have reformulated and expanded the curatorial proposal of the museum while it was closed. These results can now be seen,” affirms the researcher.

For historian Paulo César Garcez Marins, of the same institution, the changes have allowed the museum to share the responsibility surrounding the historical reflection with the public, even when it means looking at statues of the pioneers, such as Antônio Raposo Tavares (1598–1659) or Fernão Dias (1608–1681). The paintings and sculptures that decorate the museum’s lobby, staircase, and main hall are listed as national heritage and cannot be removed, but have started to be questioned through texts, multimedia resources, and audio descriptions. “Through investigations like this, we challenge current historical interpretations about Brazil and encourage intellectually active visits,” he says.

A similar challenge was faced by historian Paulo Knauss, of Fluminense Federal University (UFF), when he took over the administration of the National Historical Museum (MHN) in 2015. Willing to renovate the exhibition of items related to Afro-Brazilian history, Knauss did not want to use traditional objects that referred to the submission of enslaved people. He decided to invite representatives of the Black movement to visit the museum’s technical reserve, organized by types of materials and which included dresses, outfits, ornaments, necklaces, shoes, and pottery. “By looking at the collections, one of the participants discovered a set of objects related and usually found at a Candomblé place of worship, including beads, alter pieces, and the clothing of a mãe de santo (priestess),” says Knauss. According to him, the pieces from the worship site were well preserved, but the museum lacked a specialist capable of casting a curatorial eye over them. “We discovered that the collection had been donated by a mãe de santo in the 1990s, being one of the few collections of this type that had not resulted from religious intolerance involving police operations. The discovery was only possible due to the interaction with representatives of the Black movement,” he affirms. Restored, the collection is on display in the long-term exhibition at the MHN. “Shared curation allows knowledge to provide new interpretations of the past,” analyzes the historian.

In operation since 1960 in a palace built in 1853, the Museum of the Republic was one of the richest residences in the empire. With 11,000 museum objects, the institution run by the federal government is preparing an exhibition with 519 pieces that belong to Candomblé worship sites and make up a collection formed from police seizures between 1890 and 1946. Museologist Mário de Souza Chagas, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and director of the institution, explains that the curation of the exhibition is being developed in a shared manner with Candomblé priests and priestesses. The idea is to contemplate the sacred view they have of the objects. “The police seizures responsible for forming the collection bear the mark of the Penal Code of the Republic, which criminalized Afro-Brazilian religions,” says Chagas. The group of objects was kept in the Museum of the Civil Police of Rio de Janeiro for 30 years, and part of it was researched for the first time by anthropologist Yvonne Maggie, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 295). “Religious leaders campaigned to remove the pieces from the police museum and donate them, in 2020, to the Museum of the Republic, which was understood as a gesture of historic reparation. In 2023, the collection will be displayed in its entirety for the first time,” says the museologist.

Still in relation to innovative curation practices, Knauss, from the MHN, cites a collection put together in the context of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016. Beyond the collection of traditional pieces such as the Olympic torch or souvenirs, a team of researchers under his leadership investigated different ways of representing the event. Contact was made with residents of the community of Vila Autódromo, which was removed during the construction of the Olympic park. “The community was on the edge of what would become the park and was removed unnecessarily, since it did not completely obstruct the development,” he informs. With the support of representatives from the urban community, the researchers from the museum decided to create a collection representative of the history of the Olympic Games but that would dialogue with the historical removals of the city which, in the MHN, are represented by objects related to the destruction of Morro do Castelo, in 1921 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 266). So, the museum conceived the Vila Autódromo collection, made up of pieces that refer to the removal of that community. “In the exhibition shown in the museum, we placed a baptismal font from Morro do Castelo side by side with an aluminum window frame removed from Vila Autódromo,” he recalls. “Decisions like that clarify the interpretive act of curation, also demanding interpretation from the viewer so that the exhibition becomes a space for debates,” he says.

Knauss also mentions a painting of Dom Pedro II (1825–1891) torn by sword blows during the Proclamation of the Republic, in 1889. “When the MHN restored the work, it recovered the painting but retained the mark of the cut,” he says, mentioning another portrait of Dom Pedro II which was also attacked in the context of the proclamation and is today part of the collection of the Mariano Procópio Museum, in Juiz de Fora, state of Minas Gerais. The work was completely restored and all the marks were removed. “While the MHN preserved the memory of the iconoclastic act, the institution in Minas Gerais opted to promote forgetting it. They are different forms of approaching and interpreting the past,” highlights the historian.

At the MHN, curation shared with Indigenous intellectuals, as well as the acquisition of collections directly from native peoples, are other recent initiatives, according to historian Diogo Guarnieri Tubbs, head of the institution’s technical division. According to him, the museum prepares the inauguration of a long-term exhibition by taking new aspects of curation into account. “Museums are privileged institutions for establishing dialogue between academic research and the aspirations of social movements,” he evaluates.

For anthropologist Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, of the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (MN-UFRJ), the search for strategies to increase not only physical but also conceptual accessibility is a common trend among the country’s different museological institutions. In the case of the MN, which is currently investing in the reconstruction of the collections destroyed in the fire in 2018 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 272), the new conceptual project foresees transdisciplinary approaches using thematic blocks such as “The deep history of America,” “The African diaspore,” “Colonization and nation building,” “Urban cultures,” and “Environments of Brazil,” among others, which will unite pieces related to both the natural sciences and anthropology. “In Environments of Brazil, for example, we will present integrated information about caiçara [traditional inhabitants of coastal regions in the Southeast and South of Brazil] culture and the Atlantic Forest biome.”