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In memoriam

The National Museum's Historical Archives, which were consumed by the fire, will be reconstituted based on records made over the years on a variety of media

National Museum Archives A page of Empress Leopoldina’s workbook, with annotations in Gothic GermanNational Museum Archives

The National Museum’s (physical) archives were entirely destroyed by the fire that ravaged the palace building. Since the museum’s founding, its political, economic, and organizational affairs have been meticulously documented in records that also provide insight into its interactions with peer institutions in Brazil and worldwide. The institution’s record-keeping legacy is almost as old as the museum itself. Its very first bylaws, drafted in 1842, expressly required that “records be kept of board resolutions, correspondence with foreign museums, and the arrangement, storage, and preparation of the archives and library.” So precious was this chronicle of the history of one of the country’s first scientific institutions, its operation, and developments in the field on the international scene, that none of these documents were allowed to be borrowed or to leave the institution’s Archives and Records Section (SEMEAR). However, being located on the third floor of the palace, it is unlikely that any items of the Historical Archives—as they were called before 2002—have survived the flames.

Aside from the museum’s bylaws and the decree by which it was founded—signed by Dom João VI in 1818—the archives contained inventories of the building’s equipment and instruments, and journals containing records relating to controls and audits, visitor statistics, and photographic records. A perusal of the National Museum Journal of Incoming Items—better known as the “Doorkeeper’s Journal”—which was used between 1876 and 1892, would reveal, for example, that the zoology section received a collection of birds and mammals from the Jardin des Plantes Natural History Museum in Paris, and that in 1882 the French engineer and landscape designer Auguste Glaziou (1828–1906) sent the museum a collection of Brazilian plants that was a duplicate of another collection at a herbarium in Uppsala, Sweden.

In all, there were about 500 linear meters of text documents and approximately 15,000 graphical documents in the archives, including the fonds of pioneers such as physician Adolfo Lutz (1855–1940), botanist Alberto José de Sampaio (1881–1946), and entomologist Johann Becker (1932–2004). The archives of the Geological Commission of the Empire, the Film Censorship Commission, the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), and the Society of Friends of the National Museum, were also kept at SEMEAR.

“When I saw the flames, I went into shock,” says Maria das Graças Freitas Souza Filho, who heads SEMEAR with a master’s degree in information science. “I pictured all the documents being burned, and I wept for Bertha Lutz [1894–1976].” The eminent biologist, the daughter of Adolfo Lutz, successfully applied for tenure as a professor and researcher at the museum in 1919. An advocate of universal suffrage, she also made history as one of the leading proponents of the inclusion of gender equality in the Charter of the United Nations in 1945.

Wikimedia Commons Bertha Lutz and the plane from which women’s suffrage pamphlets were dropped over Rio in 1927Wikimedia Commons

“In addition to her research papers, we kept her personal documents—such as her correspondence with prominent feminists—her typewriter, and her tape recorder.” After the initial shock, Souza Filho took comfort in knowing that some of Lutz’s objects and documents are stored in the National Archives and at the Federal Senate, and that a partial video record of the museum’s collection had been made by Elise Dietrichson and Fatima Sator, two scholars of the University of London, who earlier this year did research at the institution on the life of Bertha Lutz.

It was also thanks to technology that digital versions of 2 of Empress Leopoldina’s (1797–1826) 31 workbooks—with hand annotations in Gothic German about astronomy, botany, and mineralogy—survived the fire. “On the Friday before the fire I decided to take the hard drive containing this part of the empress’s fonds to a meeting at the National Archives. So it was safe at my house on Sunday, and spared from the fire,” recalls Souza Filho. Shortly after the fire, she began receiving messages and phone calls from scientists from around the world, such as ethnographer Elena Soboleva of the Russian Academy of Sciences, offering to send digitized copies of documents from the archives compiled during research done at the institution.

Information system
To handle and store these materials, SEMEAR has been supported since mid-September by a task force organized by the Research, Education, and Science Outreach Council at Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, which has been tasked with managing the dedicated email account set up for this correspondence ( The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation is also part of a working group—along with the Brazilian College of Higher Learning (CBAE), the Archives of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the National Archives, and the Brazilian Institute for Science and Technology, among other institutions—that will oversee the reorganization of the museum’s historical archives. On the group’s agenda is the development of a prospective new research information system for SEMEAR, called Colheita.

Working alongside Souza Filho at the archive department are four staff members: an archivist, a historian, and two assistants. Seven high school students from Colégio Pedro II were doing research at the archives as part of the museum’s scientific initiation program (PIC Jr) when the building was destroyed. “I had heard the name of Bertha Lutz in a rap song, but I had no idea who she was. I also knew nothing about archives or fonds,” says one of the students, Joseane Amorim, aged 16. “At the museum I learned, among other things, that it was thanks to Lutz that I now have the right to vote,” says Sofia Pugliese, 18, another student in the program. Twenty days after the tragedy, the group met for the first time in a room provided by the CBAE to plan the next steps in their research—part of SEMEAR’s mission is precisely to support research on the history of the museum and the palace building and, above all, the institutionalization of science in Brazil.