Brazil Lost More Than the Past in the National Museum Fire
Uncovering the damage done to the country's present and future.
By Alejandro Chacoff <https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/alejandro-chacoff>
September 16, 2018
In addition to housing one of the richest collections of natural-history artifacts in the world, the
National Museum was one of Latin America's leading centers for postgraduate studies.
Photograph by Buda Mendes / Getty
Mirani Barros was in a cab, heading back to her apartment in Rio de Janeiro, when she saw flames in
the distance and wondered aloud to the driver whether some trees had caught fire. They were passing
the gates of the Quinta da Boa Vista, the lush municipal park that houses the National Museum. It
was the night of September 2nd. When Barros got home, she began receiving text messages from
friends, urging her to turn on the TV: the museum was engulfed in flames. She went to her window to
look. For the next few hours, she moved from the window to the images on the screen and back, as the
sounds of explosions got louder, and the billows of smoke grew thicker.
Barros, who is thirty-seven, grew up in the small city of Barra Mansa, the daughter of working-class
parents. She started college there, then transferred to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,
the public university that runs the National Museum. After graduating, she worked for a while in the
state of Rio de Janeiro's Department of Human Rights and Social Assistance, focussed on
food-security policies—"low-income restaurants, food banks, that kind of thing," she told me. She
noticed that obesity was always treated as a strictly medical condition, with none of the
interdisciplinary sensibility given to other topics. Most obese Brazilians were black women, like
her, and poor; Barros wanted to investigate whether there were other ways to think about the issue.
She got a master's degree at another public university and became interested in anthropology.
The National Museum's doctoral program in social anthropology is considered one of the best in Latin
America. Barros applied after taking a six-class seminar offered by black graduates of the program,
who help students hoping to take the entrance exam via the museum's affirmative-action system. She
passed a written test and a project evaluation, then had an oral exam and interview, on August 30th.
When I met her recently, a few days after the fire, I asked her how she did. "Oh, I killed it," she
said, laughing at her boldness. The final results were to be published on September 28th. When
Barros was watching the flames outside her window, she thought of the museum's collections from
ancient Egypt, and an archaeologist friend who had just been selected to manage a section of the
palace. It was a while before she realized that the documents pertaining to her examination had also
been lost in the fire.
The stories that have emerged in the days since the fire at the National Museum have been harrowing.
Paulo Buckup, a zoology professor who specializes in fish and molecular diversity in vertebrates,
broke down doors and ran into the burning palace, grabbing drawers full of specimens of mollusks.
His colleague Alexander Kellner, the director of the museum, went on national television and
described the experience of stepping into the museum while the fire was blazing. The flames had not
yet reached the floor where his office was located, but he was told by a firefighter that nothing
could be done: the hydrants at the site were not working. Many foreign correspondents have reached
for analogies to give readers a sense of the disaster, but it's hard to convey the museum's
significance: in addition to containing one of the richest collections of natural-history artifacts
in the world, it was one of Latin America's leading centers for postgraduate studies. It's as if, in
New York, the American Museum of Natural History and the New School, or a part of the Columbia
campus, had been built on the same spot, and then was reduced to ashes.
I visited the site four days after the fire. The museum's building and the garden at its entrance
had been cordoned off. A few TV reporters and camera crews stood around, picking up statements from
passersby. Papers flapped in the wind, hanging from a single clothesline that had been improvised on
the grass: statements from other institutions and universities, showing support in the wake of the
tragedy. Most of these statements were rather formal, buttoned-up, but one of them evoked the
political anger that has risen in the wake of the fire. "Neo-fascists hate the universities," it read.
The museum burned down; the country is burning down—that metaphor has been uttered repeatedly, in
solemn tones, since the disaster. The more I heard it, the more I resented it, because it seemed
facile and even sentimental, the kind of thing that people say when, bombarded and numbed by the
news cycle, they need to convey empathy. But, then, I had no personal connection to the museum. It
was only when I saw my wife, who grew up in Rio, shouting at a picture of the burning palace, that I
realized how much it meant to people.
The museum was founded by Dom João VI, who was then king of Portugal, in 1818; after Brazilian
independence, in 1822, it doubled as the residence of the imperial family. (The day that I visited,
the emperor Dom Pedro II's statue seemed to be intact.) There was a time when the museum embodied
the most racist notions of its day. "At the end of the nineteenth century, the National Museum was
the center of scientific determinism in Brazil," Gustavo Pacheco, who studied and worked there for
six years, told me. "They measured craniums and thatsort of thing. It's a history full of
contradictions, just as Brazilian history is full of contradictions. But a country needs these
places to understand itself."
Pacheco himself has a deep love for the place. A diplomat, he now works at the culture department of
the Federal District, in Brasília, where he oversees a memorial for indigenous peoples. He did his
doctorate in social anthropology, in the same program to which Barros is applying. He also worked as
a researcher in ethnomusicology at the museum. He is still waiting to hear what happened to
invaluable old recordings from the Pareci and Nambikwara tribes, though he has little hope that they
have been saved. Pacheco was promoting his first collection of short stories—a book he wrote over
several years, drawing partly on his research at the museum—when he started receiving messages on
his phone. "I got into the car, and before turning on the engine I cried for, like, fifteen minutes,
in front of my two children," he said.
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Pacheco does not hesitate to connect the disaster to the larger issues facing the country. "No one
in their right mind would claim that institutions are working," he said. But he also balks at
attempts to pin the fire on a single administration. "Everyone knows that the neglect had been there
for decades," he said. "In 1999, when I started my Ph.D., the museum already had this aura of decay,
it was already full of termites. Ask people about the smell. It was a very peculiar smell."
Barros's son lives with his grandmother in Barra Mansa, and visits his mother on weekends. They have
picnics amid the lush greenery at the Quinta da Boa Vista, but Barros had always postponed taking
him to see the collections and artifacts: she believed that a visit to the museum wasn't something
trivial, to be done quickly, and she figured that the relics would always be there. She would lie
with her son on the grass surrounding the palace, and sometimes she would say, "It was the Republic
that gave us permission to lie down on the prince's grass."
The site of the National Museum, an ostentatious palace that once propagated racist ideas, had
become one of the few places in the city where people from different backgrounds mixed. Far away
from the wealthier Zona Sul, it sits near two train stations, with easy access for residents from
poorer neighborhoods and districts. "I have absolute certainty that the National Museum was the
first, and perhaps even the only museum for many people," Barros told me. Growing up, she visited
the museum twice on tours organized by her public school. "To me, Rio de Janeiro was the National
Museum, Christ the Redeemer, and a stop at Bob's," she said, referring to a local fast-food chain
where the bus used to stop when she travelled to the capital.
A few days after the fire, Barros received a note from the department of social anthropology saying
that the application process was suspended until further notice, and that they would be in touch.
"I've started studying for another program, just in case this one doesn't pan out," she told me.
Compounding her anxiety is a sense of loss at all the materials and books destroyed by the fire. So
much of the media coverage has focussed on artifacts, and has overlooked the research that was being
undertaken within the institution's walls, she said, adding that this reflects a "common belief that
a museum is a place where only old stuff is kept." But the country didn't just lose history, she
said. "We lost our present—there were so many master's-level and doctorate-level research projects
going on in there—and we jeopardized part of our future, for a good while."
It had rained during the morning on the day that I visited, but by the afternoon the sun was out,
and an unseasonably cool breeze was blowing. Two firefighters left the cordoned-off area and
strolled in the shade of the trees surrounding the palace. I had heard rumors that some college
students from U.F.R.J. were helping scan the wreckage inside the building for precious items and
artifacts, and I asked them about this. One of them laughed a little, perhaps offended at the idea
that they'd need any help. "It's all destroyed inside, man," he said. "It's dangerous to even go
in." He looked at the façade and pointed at the palace's windows. "Shitload of wood in those rooms."
On September 10th, the President of Brazil, Michel Temer, announced the creation of the Brazilian
Agency for Museums, which he said would lead the reconstruction process. Depending on the poll,
Temer's approval rating stands somewhere between three and five per cent; the announcement is widely
perceived as a halfhearted effort to save face. Rebuilding is unlikely to move forward soon. The
investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.
I gazed at the palace. The soot and grime on the stone façades were like the marks seen on any
decaying building in downtown Rio. The good weather and the green surroundings of the park seemed to
give back to the place some of its grandiosity. But, looking harder at the narrow window gaps in the
distance, one could see the destruction inside: rooms blackened, surviving walls charred or
discolored, depending on where the sunlight hit. A façade of normalcy, with everything rottedinside.
This time, the metaphor seemed right.
Alejandro Chacoff is a writer living in Rio de Janeiro, and a staff writer at piauí magazine.
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