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The Brazil that is more than the five hundred years old

Brazil 50,000 Years, an exhibition in Brasília, restores the national pre-colonial past

In spite of being born 10,000 years ago, he could not say, as the song boasts (reference to a popular Brazilian rock in which the singer says he was born 10,000 years ago and there was nothing he didn’t know), that there was nothing in the world he didn’t know. Proof of this is in the exhibition, Brazil 50,000 Years: A Journey to the Pre-Colonial Past, set up by USP’s Archeology and Ethnology Museum (MAE-USP), opened on September 3 and running until December 2, in Brasília, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Supreme Court. The 50,000 in the title are a healthy provocation to the much publicized exhibition “Brazil+500”.

“In fact we will be showing 12,000 years of history, but the reference to last year’s exhibition makes clear the intention of helping the public to rethink this type of organization in our history”, explains Paula Montero, director of the MAE and one of the curators of the exhibition. “In general, we only know about colonial history after the conquest, from the winners’ point of view. People need to discover that, when the white men arrived here, there were already people that knew their territory very well, that maintained trade routes, etc. and it was thanks to the experience of these people, which the conquerors took advantage of, that colonization proved possible”, observes the researcher.

They did not make use just of the strong arms of the natives as a labor force, but also their knowledge”, she points out. To retell this ill-told story, the exhibition uses 2,000-square-meter area to be divided into six modules (the exhibition cost R$ 2 million), and an archeological and ethnological time tunnel. “But this is not just an evolutionary history conveying no idea of the growing progress among the various native societies. There are even various contemporary stories. After all, more important than time is the geography of these populations, and this is reflected in the way the exhibition has been laid out”, she says.

“In each area, the public will be able to see artifacts in their natural environment and see the reasons, in that context, that led to the creation of this or that object”, she explains. And, also as a response to the “Brazil +500” exhibition, the curators of “Brazil 50,000 Years” have done away with the fetish of objects. “What we saw of the past, in the exhibition, were objects set apart. Here, the item does not speak of itself; it is important because it is a gesture left by man to posterity and it can only speak something when related to other objects”, says Paula.

Hence, do not expect to see scale models and glass cabinets with long explanatory plaques. The group also intends to innovate in the way it is presented. “The exhibition demands a cognitive effort from visitors, it is dynamic, it makes people move between objects to try to understand their full meaning, not confining themselves to partial understanding of the items on display”, says the professor. Believing in the intelligence of the exhibition’s visitors, the organizers have afforded themselves the luxury of combining the past and the ongoing present.

“You see baskets made today in the same region, alongside old arrow heads, by people who are still connected with those peoples in the past. This combination of archeology and ethnology, so necessary, plus the fact that the exhibition concentrates on history before the arrival of the Portuguese, was only possible because we wanted visitors to be able to make the link between the past and the present on their own”, says the MAE director.

In addition, the exhibition will help to “settle accounts” between modern Brazilian archeology, its professionals, and society. “In the same way that the mistakes of Brazil+500 led to our wish to set up this exhibition, the things it got right also motivated us to use our exhibition to understand Brazilian archeology’s new role”, she says. “After a period when we were in a marginal position, today, because of that event, we enjoy greater visibility and respect in the community. This is positive on the one hand, but it brings up fresh responsibilities”, she points out.

In Paula Montero’s opinion, visibility needs to be accompanied by quality. “The profession is still not regulated; the bill is still in the Chamber of Deputies. Besides this, the conquests enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, requiring the country’s heritage to be safeguarded, reveal a dangerous gap: the law wants to safeguard the past, but we have no specialized staff to carry out this mission”, says the researcher.

But, in the exhibition, it is not only the scientific community that is exposed to the task of wearing the hat of an archeologist. “When the public goes through the time tunnel, it will be able to see on the floor and walls of the corridors of the exhibition, how, based in shards of a jug we can recount history and how the earth, through its layers, tells us how time has passed”. Visitors come to a setting reproducing, in detail, an archeological laboratory, with its instruments and microscopes, etc. “It will be people’s chance of understanding how we do our work”, says Paula.

At the end of the tunnel is a snake. Or rather a reproduction of the skeleton of the mythical Great Snake, which, according to Indian legend, swam in the Amazon River and every time it lifted its head out of the water it created another village. This is Science meeting the cosmogonic universe. And it should be so. “For all the points of the exhibition there was a collection available, except for the Amazon region. After thinking about why, we saw that the explanation lay in the Nature of the people, a boundary, moreover, that remains valid today: they are philosophical and myth-oriented people and therein lies their fascination”, she says.

“The interaction between society and Nature is achieved through myth. Hence, the Great Snake that ends the exhibition. It is also a way of reminding ourselves that, for these people, there has been no great break between the past and the present”, she says. Hence too, the pleasure of putting on the exhibition in Brasília. “The capital is a meeting place of races, an ideal site for various Brazilian types to recognize a common past heritage”, she adds. Even for those who were not born, at least 10,000 years ago.

Thesis examines the thendency to turn exhibitions into theater
The image illustrating this page is a timid example of the scenic resources used in the “Brazil + 500 Years” exhibition, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil, held last year. Colored walls, the juxtaposition of objects, and even the creation of a special environment, such as the baroque art module – in which thousands of paper flowers made by prisoners flanked the saints and statues – are a reflection of a worldwide trend: namely, to dramatize art exhibitions.

The subject, although it has become more evident for public after the exhibition, had already been studied by professor Lisbeth Rebollo Gonçalves since 1994, when she took over the direction of the University de São Paulo’s Contemporary Art Museum (MAC-USP). With the support of the USP/Cofecub, an agreement between USP and the French Government, the project included talks on the subject, held with Fapesp’s support in 97, 98 and 99, and also putting on two exhibitions at the MAC-USP, “Modernism, Paris – The 20s” (95) and “Art and the Landscape: The Esthetics of Roberto Burle Marx” (97). In June, the results of the extensive research undertaken by Lisbeth were presented in her teaching staff thesis, “Between Set Designs: The Museum and Art Exhibitions in the 20th Century”, at the Communications and Arts School (ECA-USP). The professor intends to make a book out of the work.

Casting her art historian’s eye on the subject, Lisbeth tells the story of how scenography has been handled since the beginning of the 20th century. As she shows, art salons were held at the beginning of the century in the great palaces, the pictures and sculptures were displayed around randomly, not always adhering to the practice of separating each work for it to be appreciated better.

The concept of the “white cube” arose in 1939, at the inauguration of the then new building of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in which the paintings are hung at the viewer’s eye height in completely neutral surroundings. “This concept revolutionized the way of looking at modern art and the very history of art”, comments the researcher.

Although it is still a reference point for most museum visitors, the white cube began being revised in 1968, after the so-called “romantic revolution” in France. “Museums began to rethink their role”, says the professor.Everything began with the opening of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, in 1977. The Beaubourg, as it became known, marked the beginning of an era in which museums sought the popularize access to art. Nowadays, as Lisbeth says, the white cube and dramatization are resources used by museums in the four corners of the globe. “At the curators’ choice, one or other resource can help them to express what they want from the exhibition, especially when they use dramatization”, says Lisbeth. In her opinion, the scenography of art exhibitions makes visitors feel like actors on the stage.