Anthropologists, ethnologists, and linguists at the National Museum have begun rebuilding their collections by forging new relationships with the original populations studied, distancing themselves from the colonialist bias that marked the formation of many collections in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the artifacts were initially collected and analyzed from an evolutionary perspective that favored the “exotic,” the idea now is to structure the new collections based on field research conducted in partnership with indigenous peoples, community associations, and ethno-racial groups. “Before the fire, we had already begun a process of restoring the collections through dialogue with these populations,” explains historian and anthropologist Adriana Vianna, a professor on the Museum’s Graduate Program in Social Anthropology (PPGAS). “According to Edmundo Pereira, a professor directly involved with the ethnographic collection, negotiations were underway regarding repatriation of Maori human remains. We have also already had conversations with the Karajás about removing artifacts from exhibition that should not be seen outside their ritual contexts.”
The social anthropology sector is part of the National Museum’s Anthropology Department, which also comprises biological anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and ethnography and linguistics. The department is associated with graduate programs in Social Anthropology (PPGAS) and in Linguistics, which include the Professional Master’s Degree in Linguistics and Indigenous Languages (PROFLLIND), as well as specialization and extension courses in Brazilian Indigenous Languages, and Generative Grammar and Cognition Studies (CEGC).
The social anthropology collection included approximately 40,000 documents and books from the Francisca Keller Library, while the Ethnology and Ethnography Sector (SEE) housed a collection of some 42,000 ethnographic artifacts from various peoples and tribes in Brazil, Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and Asia. Items from the Center for Documentation in Indigenous Languages (CELIN) were also lost. The Memory and Archive Section (SEMEAR) held the institution’s own historical archive. Although it is not yet possible to identify which items are recoverable, it seems inevitable that any artifacts made of paper, straw, ceramic, wood, feathers and other flammable materials will have been destroyed. The fire also consumed books, documents and research materials stored in the offices of at least 30 professors working in the department.
In the nineteenth century, anthropology developed from the study of collected objects, characterized by the efforts of researchers to typify the peoples studied by analyzing their artifacts. In the twentieth century, through research such as that of Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942), the field began to contemplate these artifacts in their social and cultural contexts, through participant observation by anthropologists. Anthropology underwent a theoretical transformation, giving rise to a number of interpretivist branches interested in understanding the meaning of objects.
“Between 1940 and 1960, these branches moved away from the material nature of the tools and began prioritizing field studies and social roles, distancing themselves from the analysis of collections stored in museums. As a result, the material culture was considered less important than the meaning attributed to it,” explains Renata de Castro Menezes, a PPGAS professor. According to Menezes, the trend reversed from the 1990s onward, when anthropologists once again became interested in the materiality of artifacts, looking at museum collections to update their interpretations. Otávio Velho, professor emeritus at PPGAS, notes that during this period, Afro and Indian movements also began to see these collections as a means of reconstructing their histories and aspects of their cultures.
Menezes’s recent studies have involved the collection at the National Museum as well as field research. Before the fire, she analyzed the regional collection, which was part of the technical reserve and was formed between 1930 and 1950 by anthropologist and former director of the museum Heloísa Alberto Torres (1895–1977). It held 2,700 pieces, including popular Brazilian artifacts such as clothing and accessories worn by lacemakers, cowboys, rubber tappers, and traditional peoples from the state of Bahia, as well as Mbundu clothing and utensils, including ceramics and stoves. “The research aimed to identify what these objects represented in those decades,” she explains.
The anthropologist was also developing a partnership with the Rio de Janeiro–based samba school Estação Primeiro de Mangueira, which in return had donated 30 costumes to the museum’s collection. The institution has recently collaborated with another samba school, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, which celebrated its bicentenary at this year’s Carnival. After the show, the costumes were displayed at the exhibition O museu dá samba – A Imperatriz é o relicário no bicentenário do Museu Nacional (The museum and samba – Imperatriz and the National Museum celebrate their bicentenaries together). The exhibition, which opened in May and would have run until the end of the year, offered a reflection on the possible ways of displaying costumes and the need for a study to contextualize them, combining scientific knowledge and popular art. “These partnerships say a lot about the institution’s identity—the National Museum has always been popular among the general public, who like to see themselves represented there,” she says. The museum’s collections underwent constant expansion and reinterpretation. “It wasn’t just our past that got burned, but also our future,” laments Menezes, while welcoming the proposals that have been received from ethnic groups and local communities interested in helping to rebuild the collection.
The collection assembled by German ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú (1883–1945), who traveled Brazil for 40 years in the early twentieth century, studying and mapping indigenous communities, is considered one of the biggest losses. Nimuendajú was one of the first to record the languages spoken by various peoples, and although much of the material has already been published or scanned, the museum still had unpublished manuscripts, photographs, and negatives stored at CELIN and SEMEAR. One of the original ethno-historical-linguistic maps drawn by Nimuendajú in 1944 was kept at CELIN, showing the locations of the main ethnic groups in Brazil. The Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará in Belém, Pará, has another original version of this map, which was printed in a paper published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). “The ethnographic collection had many artifacts that are no longer made by the indigenous communities, including feather objects from a collection that had only been partially scanned by the museum,” says Carlos Fausto, a professor at PPGAS. Similar items can be seen at the Native Indian Museum in Rio and the Emílio Goeldi museum. “Goeldi has a similar collection, but smaller and from a shorter timeframe,” he says.
In a project started in 2002 to document Kuikuro rituals in the Xingu region of Mato Grosso State, Fausto realized that it would be impossible to use traditional recording methods without the indigenous peoples themselves participating in the filming process. From this need to involve them directly, he had the idea of training filmmakers in the villages through an initiative he developed in conjunction with the “Video in the Villages” project, coordinated by French-Brazilian anthropologist and documentary-maker Vincent Carelli, who has been involved in the training of indigenous filmmakers since 1986.
From the village to academia
The ethnographic collections destroyed by the fire were also being studied by indigenous students, who joined the graduate program via the social quota policy, says Bruna Franchetto, a linguistics professor at the School of Arts of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and at PPGAS, the first Social Anthropology graduate program in the country. She has kept all records of the Kuikuro language taken during her research since 1977 preserved in digital format outside the National Museum.
Research on peasantry in Brazil opened doors to new fields of Brazilian anthropology
“The Social Anthropology graduate program was created in 1968 and since the CAPES [Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education] evaluation began, it has been awarded the highest grade every year, which today corresponds to grade 7,” emphasizes the current head of the course, anthropologist John Comerford. Of the 160 students currently on the program, 35 enrolled via the racial or indigenous quota system. More than 800 theses and dissertations have been defended, none of which were lost to the fire. “The most recent papers are stored in digital databases and the older ones, which are on paper only, are stored at UFRJ’s Ilha do Fundão campus,” he says.
In the beginning, the research conducted at the institution involved studies on Brazilian indigenous societies, based on advances made by English anthropological theories since 1940, which rejected the evolutionist perspective of previous schools of thought and favored fieldwork. Historically, studies at the museum have contributed to the debate on issues such as land demarcation, including research by historian and anthropologist Antonio Carlos Souza Lima that verified the existence of 518 areas traditionally occupied by indigenous populations—today there are around 670 in total. “The data collected in the study was essential to the discussion on indigenous rights in relation to the traditional occupation of their lands,” says Lima.
Since the 1960s, studies developed at the museum have opened doors to new fields of research, such as the research into Brazilian peasantry coordinated by anthropologists Otávio Velho and Moacir Palmeira, which involved large teams. Velho joined the institution in 1966 as research assistant to the founder of the graduate program, Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira (1928–2006), and was the first student to defend a master’s thesis there. “Research conducted in a museum linked directly to academia enables a multidisciplinary approach to a subject,” explains Palmeira. “In my case, my contact with anthropological methods and theories allowed me to look at the same issues, but from a different angle.”
In addition, Comerford points out, the graduate school was a pioneer in implementing racial and indigenous quotas in 2012. In 2015, the linguistics sector of the Anthropology Department created the first stricto sensu graduate course in Literature, Languages, and Linguistics with an emphasis on indigenous languages. According to linguist Marília Facó Soares, also a professor at PPGAS, 70% of the spaces on native language courses are offered to indigenous people. Seventeen students have already graduated from the program. Eighty-five students from villages around the country participated in the most recent selection process. “Our indigenous students seek formal education because they want to be recognized as intellectuals with knowledge of their peoples,” says Soares. “Now we want to strengthen our partnership with them, so that they can help us recreate the collections we have lost, which were also part of the heritage of their peoples,” says the researcher, who runs the CELIN. Soares says the center had already cataloged about 190 languages, documents from the colonial period, and textual, sound and visual records of indigenous people speaking in native languages, as well as varieties of Portuguese spoken in Brazil.
According to Soares, in the mid-1980s there was a significant inflection in the relationship between linguists and their interlocutors in the villages, who were no longer called “informants” and instead became known as “native consultants” or “colleagues” in recognition of their role as coauthors of the research conducted in their territories. According to her, there was a prevailing sentiment among linguists from that point on that they had to return their knowledge to the indigenous populations studied. “At that time, on one of my first field trips, I abandoned the practice used by most linguists of giving indigenous people gifts in exchange for data. Instead, I wanted to compensate them with the work itself, by getting them involved and discussing the results of studies conducted using the data they provided,” she recalls.
Soares estimates that she has lost all the tape recordings of native languages she collected during her first 20 years of work, although records have been stored on electronic media since the 2000s. To recover the burned material, she plans to repeat the fieldwork over the coming months. “One advantage I have is that I can rely on the indigenous partnerships I have formed with several Amazonian communities,” she points out. In addition to receiving indigenous students onto the museum’s academic programs, Soares teaches school classes in the villages where she does her fieldwork.
The process of rebuilding the collection is not the only challenge that the professors at the museum currently face. Resuming teaching activities one week after the tragedy was also no easy task. “On the Tuesday after the fire, we organized ourselves into committees to take care of different aspects of the recovery process, including retrieving documents from various departments and receiving book donations,” explains Adriana Vianna, a professor at PPGAS.
Since then, courses and seminars have been held in one of the six buildings of the museum complex located in the Quinta da Boa Vista gardens. For Vianna, whose studies do not depend directly on the destroyed collections, the biggest loss was the Francisca Keller Library, which had been based in the palace since the 1970s. “It was a reference for researchers from all over Latin America,” she says. “We have received help and donations from intellectuals and anthropologists’ associations from around the world, and we are now organizing a space for these new books and documents,” says the researcher, estimating that the library will have been partially restored by the end of the year.Republish