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National Museum of Brazil: Remembering Its Past

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(The following is a post by Talía Guzmán-González, reference librarian and Luso-Brazilian specialist, Hispanic Division.)

Don Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil. [Between 1855-1865]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Museums, like libraries, feed our curiosity, connect us with the past, and inspire us to imagine a possible (and better!) future. They are also lasting emblems of a nation’s cultural capital. The Portuguese King, D. João VI (1767-1826), understood this very well when on June 6, 1818, ten years after fleeing the Napoleonic invasion and transferring the Portuguese court to Brazil, he signed a decree to create the Museu Real (Royal Museum), which later became the  Museu Nacional in 1830. Originally located in Campo de Santana in downtown Rio de Janeiro, the Museu Real was dedicated to the study of botany and zoology in Brazil, seeking to incentivize the development of an interest in scientific knowledge in the colony now turned seat of the Portuguese Empire. The creation of the Museu was part of an extensive project to create a cultural landscape worthy of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, a city that was not known then for its cultural prominence. Other cultural institutions were born during the same period: the Biblioteca Real (Royal Library) in 1810, the Escola Real de Ciências, Artes e Oficios (Royal School of Science, Arts, and Crafts ) in 1816, and the Real Jardim Botânico (Royal Botanical Gardens) in 1819. The Museu Real, along with those institutions, represented a new era in Brazilian history and set in motion many initiatives that culminated in one of the largest collections of specimens and artifacts for the study of science in Latin America. After the proclamation of the Brazilian Republic in 1889, Brazil started to organize its public education system, and four decades later the Museu Nacional became part of Universidade do Brasil (later Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) (Museu Nacional, p. 5).

San Cristovaõ / drawn by Maria Graham ; engraved by Edwd. Finden. London: Published by Longman & Co. & J. Murray, 1824 March 25.

The Museu Nacional was the first museum in Brazil and the oldest scientific institution in the country. In 1892, the museum was transferred to the Paço de São Cristóvão (Palace of Saint Christopher), which was the site of many historic events. The Paço became the royal residence in 1809 when D. João VI purchased it from a local merchant and renovated it to fit the needs and image of the Portuguese crown. The palace was also the site of the abdication of the Emperor D. Pedro I (1798-1834) in 1831, nearly a decade after the independence of Brazil in 1822, which was followed by a period of political instability known as the Regency when the country was ruled by a series of administrators until Emperor D. Pedro II (1825-1891) – who himself was born in the palace in 1825 – reached majority age in 1840. For many years the palace was not only the residence of Brazil’s emperors and the last link to a colonial (and Portuguese) past, but, because it was both the imperial residence and the Museu do Imperador, it was also where politics and science merged. D. Pedro II kept a large collection of scientific items that he had collected during his travels around Brazil and abroad to Europe, Egypt, and the United States. This was befitting of the character of D. Pedro II, who was known for his keen interest in natural sciences, mineralogy, botany, geology, anthropology and archeology, among other branches of science. Many European naturalists added the specimens they collected in their travels to the museum’s holdings, including the English mineralogist John Mawe, the Bavarian biologist Johann Baptist von Spix, and botanist Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius as well as the French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Fausto, p. 67). Artists from the French Artistic Mission, a group composed of painters, sculptors, and architects from France who went to Brazil in 1816 to create some of the most lasting images of Brazil during the 19th century, such as Jean Baptiste Debret‘s paintings of daily life and places in Rio de Janeiro, including the Paço de São Cristóvão.

This long, rich, and celebrated history came to a halt on the evening of September 2, 2018. A devastating fire consumed approximately 90 percent of the collection of the Museu Nacional. Irreplaceable treasures like the entomology, arachnology, and part of the mollusk collection, as well as Egyptian mummies that had been bought by D. Pedro II, and many artifacts that belonged to Indigenous and African tribes were indiscriminately destroyed and lost. The 11,500 years old fossil of Luiza, one of the oldest human fossils in South America, was severely damaged, although recent information suggests that about 80 percent of her skeleton may be recovered, but she’ll have to be painstakingly reconstructed from the bones that were salvaged. Although over two centuries of the study of natural life in Brazil were suddenly erased, some collections remain in their permanent housing at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, like the collection of marine invertebrates. One small consolation is the knowledge that the collection of the Museu Nacional will live in the hundreds of publications that have come out of the institution since its creation and the many studies that were born from research among its treasures.

The 1882 exhibit brought together the largest South American anthropological collection in the world at the time (Museu Nacional, p. 19),

For many years the Library of Congress has acquired monographs, scientific publications, catalogs, and serials published by the Museu Nacional or about its collections. The Library’s overseas acquisitions office in Rio de Janeiro nurtured a relationship with the museum through donations that have allowed us to amass a collection that tells the unique story of one of the most important scientific institutions in the Americas. These publications as well as many other studies produced in the Museu Nacional remain as a memory of the immeasurable value that the museum had for the study of Brazil and the world.  Exhibit catalogs, the “Boletim do Museu Nacional,” the publication of the Archivos do Museu Nacional since 1876, works on the study of indigenous languages, atlases of indigenous populations in Brazil, and studies on the pedagogical role of museums, are only some examples of the rich legacy of this institution.

Among the few remaining items standing from this collection is Bendegó, a large piece of meteorite found in the interior of the state of Bahia 1784, and that in 1888 was transferred to the Museu Nacional, becoming the largest celestial piece recovered in Brazil. The name Bendegó comes from a river where it was found. However, the word also means “coisa descomunal,” an extraordinary, grandiose thing. And it is precisely as such that Bendegó stands among the debris of the fire, as a reminder and a challenge. The effort to reconstruct the Museu Nacional will be, no doubt, “uma coisa descomunal” that will require efforts from the Brazilian government and also the assistance of the scientific and cultural heritage institutions from around the world. An extraordinary and grandiose task, like Bendegó.

Works cited:

Museu Nacional (Brazil). “O Museu Nacional” / [coordenação geral, Sergio Alex Kugland de Azevedo]. [São Paulo, Brazil] : Banco Safra, c2007.

Fausto, Boris. “História concisa do Brasil. English A concise history of Brazil” / Boris Fausto ; translated by Arthur Brakel. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Comments (4)

  1. When I saw the headlines in September I knew this was a significant loss, but thank you for educating me on just how significant a cultural resource this is. I share your hope that there is a tremendous global effort taken to restore/reconstruct it and look forward to reading more!

  2. Thank you for this article. Your writings and postings about various works of art and locations such as this have taught me much.

  3. Great article: informative and well-detailed. Thanks for bringing up some important aspects of our Lusophone culture.

  4. Hi Talía and all, I would like to share with you and everyone else the Book Donation Campaign that we have organised with the support of the Tozzer Library at Harvard. I am proud to announce that we managed to collect over 500 books for the Francisca Keller Library at the National Museum, which was also the largest Anthropology library in the country. I am delivering, in person, the first 140 books on the Native Peoples of the Americas this week and we expect to deliver the remaining 360+ books next June. I believe this initiative could be much greater and wider if we united our efforts with other libraries and research institutions in the USA. I hope, with this, not only to spread the word, but also to remain at the disposal of anyone interested in collaborating with this small effort. Thanks!

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