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From the Ground Up: The Digital Rebuilding of the National Museum of Brazil

On September 2, the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, was destroyed by fire. The building, which had been the Imperial Palace between 1820 and 1889, and all its collections, disappeared in flames. These were the collections of a natural history university museum with approximately 20 million objects. This is also a research and teaching institution, and, sadly, the famous library (of 37,000-plus volumes) of the prestigious post-graduate Program of Social Anthropology was also lost.

View of the Pacific Room of the National Museum. Photo by Nuno Porto.

In a press release of September 12 from the National Museum, the loss is qualified as “irreparable.” In their own words, “The ethnographic collections are the result of two centuries of anthropological production, and of the creation of relationships between researchers, curators, Indigenous peoples and other populations. The ethnographic patrimony amounted to over 42,000 items, mainly from Brazilian Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian peoples, and popular collectives, as well as from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia. Each collection lost, stands for past encounters that encompassed both violent processes of border occupation and the experimentation with forms of fieldwork geared towards the creation of community museums and shared management of collections.” From this total, about 30,000 items collected in the last 200 years testified for the long presence of over 300 Indigenous groups in Brazil. Besides the collections, the whole museum archives and the textual, audio and visual fonds of the Centre for the Documentation of Indigenous Languages (CELIN), including recordings of now extinguished languages, were also destroyed. While the causes of the fire are being determined and the final assessment of the loss is being calculated, the future actions to be taken will be in the digital realm. Approximately 13,000 objects had been digitized, and the museum’s immediate rebuilding efforts are looking to expand this.

The museum has sent a universal call to obtain photographs of their objects and displays in order to compose its digital memory. The press release also acknowledges that other museums, private collectors and Indigenous partners have stepped forward and volunteered to help rebuild its collections.

Over the past several years, MOA had developed a steady relationship with the National Museum of Brazil. In 2013 I was invited to participate in the renewal of its African displays, and during those few days I managed to do a short show-and-tell about MOA, the multi-institutional Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), the Idle No More movement in Canada, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The presentation captured the hearts and minds of our colleagues at the National Museum and showed the correlations between the two institutions’ efforts and goals. Their own work with Brazilian Indigenous populations related to the idea that the small but important Northwest Coast collection under their guard needed to be known at home by the originating Indigenous communities and others, as part of a renewal of the connections between the south and north of the Americas. So, with this for motivation, there I was, exhausting the lunch hours of the National Museum staff and any other time they had to spare, asking them to retrieve documents, open cases and bring out the Northwest Coast objects so that I could photograph them to add them to the RRN.

Improvised digitization studio in the National Museum’s Pacific Room. Photo by Nuno Porto.

The National Museum has a long history. The institution was created as the Royal Museum in 1818 and its founding collections were brought by the Portuguese royal family in 1806. Fleeing Portugal from Napoleon’s armies, King John VI crossed the Atlantic with the Portuguese court, with part of the royal collections and the royal library.

When the Royal Museum was established in Brazil, the idea that the country would become independent had been brewing for a while. And in 1822 it became a reality, as two absolutist royal houses from Europe, the Braganza and the Habsburg, became Emperors of Brazil. It was then that the Royal Museum was rebaptized as the National Museum under the auspices of the former Austrian princess Leopoldina who, by this time, had become the Empress of Brazil.

The Northwest Coast collections at the National Museum arrived in two different sets. Fourteen items were offered to the museum by a Russian diplomat in 1821. These objects came mainly from the Aleutian, Sitka, King George, and Haida Gwaii islands. They are curiosity objects and also war loot collected after the military occupation by the Russian American Company, of an area that includes the Northwest Coast up from California, and extends to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. In contrast, the second donation in 1884 occurred as a scientific exchange between Brazil and Germany. The 37 items, according to the record books, “are part of a precious collection done by a traveller, in the interest of the Royal Museum of Berlin, mainly among the Haida of Queen Charlotte Islands [now Haida Gwaii] and neighbouring tribes from the coast.” Similar items remain in the Museum of Berlin. Together, with the images housed on the RRN, they contribute to illuminate past relations that have materialized in specific objects and could trigger new relationships.

Compare any ethnographic item to a manuscript, unique and irreplaceable, endowed with knowledge and retaining the potential to teach others and the dimensions of the catastrophe may only begin to be grasped. The impact of the tragic losses of such precious objects in the fire will likely be felt for decades to come and will take support from the global community to help rebuild the museum.

Important links

Check out the Northwest Coast collections that were at the National Museum – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. (Requires sign-in)

Contribute to rebuild the library of the post-graduate program in Social Anthropology.

Send your photos and any digital material from the National Museum – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to the Sector of Ethnology and Ethnography.


Photos: Wikipedia Commons / Nuno Porto.