African & Oceanic Art

"A Crime Against World Heritage": Experts Mourn Brazil's National Museum

When Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro caught fire on Sunday, invaluable cultural artefacts dating back thousands of years were reduced to ashes. As the region’s institutions attempt to come to terms with what has happened, Sotheby’s spoke to international experts about the 200-year-old museum and what the loss of its collection means for our understanding of culture and the natural world.

Assessing the Loss of Cultural Heritage

Current reports suggest that up to 90% of the museum’s collection has been destroyed, or 18 million of its 20 million exhibits. Among the priceless specimens feared lost is “Luzia”, the Americas’ oldest human skull; dinosaur fossils and more than 5 million insect specimens, including holotypes (the first and most important examples); and audio recordings of indigenous languages, many of which are no longer spoken. These are crucial fragments of Brazil’s – and the world’s – human and natural history, and their destruction has torn an irreparable hole in our cultural memory.

The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro

AERIAL VIEW OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM AFTER THE FIRE, 4 SEPTEMBER 2018. © Xinhua/Alamy

The disaster has sparked anger among cultural specialists and the public alike. There have been protests outside the gates of the museum. “The loss of the National Museum is a crime against world heritage that resulted from years of neglect and underfunding, a problem that has dramatically increased in the past two years,” says Ana-Lucia Araujo, a Brazilian-born social and cultural historian and professor of history at Howard University, Washington, DC. For many, attention has turned towards the country’s governing bodies.

“It is a potent symbol for many in Brazil at the moment,” says Oliver Basciano, international editor at Art Review and a specialist in Latin American art. “After two years under the presidency of Michel Temer, and with the presidential election in a month's time looking like it will herald an even more extreme regime, many in the humanities and arts have never been more depressed.”

THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF BRAZIL DURING THE FIRE, 2 SEPTEMBER 2018. © Tânia Rego/Agência Brasil

Experts Weigh In

Claire Lyons, curator of Antiquities, J Paul Getty Museum

“Among the vast collections of the Museu Nacional da Quinta da Boa Vista, Mediterranean antiquities have a symbolic presence. While we await news of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art housed there, it is worth remembering the deeply rooted internationalism for which the museum has been justly celebrated. In the 1850s, Teresa Cristina, Empress of Brazil and a passionate archaeologist, brought Classical art to Rio de Janeiro, including objects excavated on her properties at the great Etruscan site of Veii. In turn, she promoted exchanges that endowed Italy with examples of Brazilian native arts – a model of cultural solidarity that we can only hope will sustain Brazil’s museums in the next years.”

Clark Erickson, curator of the American Section, Penn Museum

“I think the whole country is in grief from this tragedy. The museum had huge collections representing pretty much every culture in the country, including one of the few Classical Mediterranean collections in Latin America. But probably for Brazil, the biggest loss is the Amazonian collection. One of the striking things about this collection was that a lot of it had provenance. So that’s a massive loss. The other thing, probably as important as the objects, is its library. It had the biggest scientific library in Brazil, covering all topics, but in particular anthropology, archaeology and history. And those records apparently are all gone now. It’s amazing how almost instantly anthropologists and archaeologists have stepped up [to help], while there are already initiatives to try to collect books to rebuild the library.”

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, chief curator of the 33rd São Paulo Biennial

“The National Museum fire was a complete tragedy. It was a great repository of scientific and natural history, including an impressive ethnographic collection that was to be the basis of an exhibition, Joy of Living, Joy of Creation, planned by Mario Pedrosa and the artist Lygia Pape in 1978 for the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, which was also burned down, thwarting the project.”

Jochen Volz, director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo

“This is a tragedy that will have an impact not only on Brazil but also on research worldwide as the museum is a global reference resource. The National Museum is recognised as a centre of research around the world; its equivalent is possibly an institution like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, encompassing areas such as natural science and anthropology. It housed, for example, an important documentation centre for indigenous languages, with an archive of audio recordings of languages that are no longer spoken. It also held the oldest human fossil in the Americas. It will be interesting to see how much of the collection has been digitised, which might be one way of conserving and saving some of the knowledge.”

GALLERIES OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF BRAZIL, BEFORE THE FIRE C. 2015 © Foto Arena LTDA/Alamy

Luis Pérez-Oramas, former curator of Latin American Art, MoMA

“The destruction of the National Museum in Rio is an incommensurable loss. However, it is maybe pertinent to wonder why public awareness, both national and international, of this capital institution was so low. Why was there never a paper on it in the specialised press? Why has nobody included it among the must-see places in Rio? This museum housed the Portuguese royal family, then the emperors of Brazil: modern Brazil was symbolically born there, as well as the Brazilian Republic. The followers of Humboldt [the German scholar who spent five years exploring Latin America and is one of the founding fathers of modern science] left there the most important natural history collection in the Americas.”

David Gelber, writer on Brazilian culture

“The National Museum was the most notable monument of Brazil’s experiment – unprecedented in the Americas – with constitutional monarchy in the 19th century. Stately but not bombastic, this neoclassical building stood as a symbol of the ideals of enlightened leadership and consensual government that underpinned the Brazilian monarchy. The part of the palace that had been preserved, where you could still visit what remained of the throne room, was particularly interesting. That was a remnant of the original architectural purpose that may now be lost.”

Ana-Lucia Araujo, professor of History at Howard University

“The loss of the museum’s African collection that included valuable objects (sent by the King of Dahomey to then Prince Regent Dom João in the early 19th century) such as a wood carved throne and an applique hanging depicting wars in the Bight of Benin that produced prisoners to be sold in the Atlantic slave trade, is especially painful. The loss of the museum’s huge collection of Brazilian indigenous artefacts collected over the last three centuries is deeply saddening.”

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Additional reporting from Brazil by Gareth Harris

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