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“Savages” in the museum

128 years ago a group of Indians was put on display in the Brazilian Anthropological Exhibition

National MuseumCover of journal with a drawing of a Botocudo IndianNational Museum

July 29, 1882 promised to be different in Rio de Janeiro. A public holiday and fireworks announced the 36th birthday of Princess Isabel and invited people to a rare event in the city. On that day the National Museum opened the Brazilian Anthropological Exhibition, with the presence of the leading personalities from Rio society and the entire Court. In addition to the princess, Emperor Dom Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina visited the exhibition, which was widely covered by the press. Some Botocudo Indians from Goiás and Espirito Santo, and Xerente Indians from Minas Gerais also took part in the inauguration ceremony The difference is that the Indians were brought there to be exhibited, and not to visit it. The event of 1882 was one of the most important scientific happenings from the end of the 19th century in Brazil. Shows similar to those of Rio were in vogue in other countries in Latin America, Europe and the United States. The desire to popularize science, the controversies relating to the theory of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin, the longing to find out about Brazil’s past and the fascination caused by Indians motivated the director of the National Museum, Ladislao Netto, to organize the show. The exhibits were arranged in eight rooms that were given names to honor figures from history and science: Vaz de Caminha, Léry, Rodrigues Ferreira, Hartt, Lund, Martius, Gabriel Soares and Anchieta. They all wrote reports that helped make the Brazil of earlier periods, from the discovery of the new land in the 16th century, known. The eight rooms showed some of the country’s archaeological discoveries, such as fossilized human remains, shells from sambaquis [prehistoric archaeological sites on the coast] and Indian objects of different ethnicities. Also produced was the Journal of the Brazilian Anthropological Exhibition, with articles that tried to give scientific meaning to what was on display in the museum.

National MuseumRitual objects used by the Mahué IndiansNational Museum

The “savages”, as they were called, were part of the exhibition in living groups, making up a scenario that simulated their daily lives. The articles in the journal, directed by Mello Moraes Filho and written by Brazilian specialists, always referred to the Indians as representatives of the most primitive stages of human evolution, as opposed to evolved white Caucasian men. The event was an opportunity to observe them as if they were living fossils, using arguments that were as scientific as possible for that period. The measurements of the Indians, their muscular form, the shape of their skulls and their moral and social habits were analyzed and compared with mixed race and white people. “The physical anthropology was completely different from the anthropology of the 20th century,” says biologist Charbel Niño El-Hani, coordinator of the Research Group in the History, Philosophy and Education of Biological Sciences, at the Federal University of Bahia, who has studied the issue. “Indigenous people were looked at in a different way than they would be by Claude Lévi-Strauss several decades later.”

National MuseumIllustration of a Tembé IndianNational Museum

The idea of Indians as living fossils was considered useful for studying man’s past in Brazil and did not cause the same revulsion that is caused today, in the assessment of historian Marcia Ferraz, from the Simão Mathias Center for the Study of the History of Science at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Cesima / PUC-SP). “That was the way science was all over the world, not just in Brazil,” Marcia explains. The scientific criteria used were those of natural history and not those that the social sciences would use later. The exhibition ran for three months and was considered very successful because it attracted over a thousand visitors and caused some international repercussion. “Those who visited it, however, were only members of Rio’s small elite of that time, who were both literate and interested in scientific novelties,” concludes El-Hani.