Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: “I would like the Museu Nacional to remain as a ruin, a memory of the dead things.”

Author: Thiago Oppermann, a research fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. His research deals predominately with interactions between villagers and the state in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. He translated this interview between journalist Alexandra Prado Coelho and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and we have published it in full to provide a better insight into the tragic loss that has occurred in Brazil. 

Original in Portuguese by Alexandra Prado Coelho:

See the original article here.

PÚBLICO, 4 September 2018

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, now 67 years old, is one of the most well known Brazilian anthropologists, the author of many books and originator of the concept of Amerindian perspectivism. He is a Professor at the Museu Nacional of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the institution which on Sunday night was destroyed by the fire which has almost completely wiped out a collection of more than 20 million items of incalculable value. He spoke with PÚBLICO via telephone from Rio de Janeiro.

Q: What is the significance of the loss of the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro for Brazil and for the world?

A: The Museu Nacional was perhaps the most important place in Brazil in terms of its value in cultural and historical heritage, not only Brazilian but global heritage. This is the destruction of the ground zero, the central site that was a symbol for the birth of the country as an independent nation and which contained an inestimable collection, not only from the point of view of the history of Brazilian nature and culture, but with items of global significance. The entire indigenous ethnology collection, including collections from disappeared cultures were destroyed, the anthropology library was destroyed, the most important and oldest human fossil in the Americas, Luzia, was destroyed. It is a loss that cannot be reversed, there is nothing that can be done to mitigate or soften this situation. One can only cry over the spilled milk, which serves for nothing.

The ultimate causes of this fire, the whole world knows. It is the neglect by this government, and its predecessors, for culture. Brazil is a country where to govern is to create deserts. Natural deserts, in space, as in the devastation of the cerrado, of the Amazon. Nature is destroyed and now culture is being destroyed, creating deserts in time. We are losing with this part of the history of Brazil and the world because these were testimonies significant for all of civilization.

Q: It is, therefore, a loss with a global impact.

A: Certainly, it has an impact on Brazil, on Portugal – because a good part of the history of Portugal was in this museum, which was once the residence of D. João VI – and also of global history. The ethnology collection did not have significance only for Brazil due to the people there represented having inhabited this part of the planet. These people are significant for the history of humanity. Beyond this, there were also very valuable pieces from beyond the Brazilian territory, African pieces, Egyptian and Etruscan.

It is an incalculable loss that is explained – not justified, but explained – by the absolute neglect that all governments, and this last illegitimate government in particular, have for culture, with dramatic cuts to cultural and educational budgets, grave threats to demolish public universities. It is a project of devastation, of the creation of deserts, deserts in time and space. The destruction of the museum is a desert in time, it is the destruction of memory, destruction of history.

Q: And for you specifically, what are the implications?

A: The Museu Nacional housed several departments of the University [Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro]. The museum held exhibitions, but it was also a research museum, and I was part of the research sector, the postgraduate program in anthropology. My relationship with the physical part of the museum, with the objects, was much less than many of my colleagues. The personal loss, for me, is the anthropology library, which must have had some 200,000 titles and which was a fundamental research instrument for my work as a scholar.

This loss has affected me in a direct manner, we lost an entire library built over fifty years. As an ethnologist, the loss of the collection of the Museu Nacional means for me the loss of all the material memory of these peoples that had been torn apart by European colonialism and which remained in the museum as silent witnesses to the sinister history that was the invasion of the Americas by European powers.

Q: The anthropology library had irreplaceable manuscripts and volumes.

A: Less so manuscripts, because the central library of the Museu Nacional was not in the destroyed building, but in an annex, and it is this library that contains the rare works. The postgraduate library was very modern, it had the entire anthropological, historical and sociological research of the last fifty years. While it could theoretically be rebuilt, there is no money to do so. Of the rest, the fossils, the butterflies, the insects, the research collections, this is irreplaceable.

Q: What should be done with the burnt-down building?

A: My wish, with the rage that we are all feeling, is to leave this ruin as a memento mori, with the memory of the dead, of the dead things, of the dead peoples, of the dead archives, destroyed in this fire.

I would not build in that place. And, above all, I would not attempt to hide, to erase this event, pretending that nothing happened and to try to put there a modern building, a digital museum, an internet museum – I do not doubt that these ideas will come forward. I would like that it remains in ashes, in ruins, only the façade standing, so that all can see and remember. A memorial.

A: Can this tragedy open a serious debate in Brazil over the divestment from culture?

A: No, it will not open a debate. There have already been extremely grave fires in Brazilian museums, in the Museum of Modern Arts in 1978, in the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo, even yesterday there was a fire in a historical house in the centre of Salvador. I don’t think there will be any reflection, as the country has dived into a gigantic political, moral, cultural and economic crisis. There will be shouting for some time, crying and the gritting of teeth, and soon things will return to what they always were: plans for a future that are never realised, funds that are promised but not given. I am very afraid that there will be an effort to sell this siren’s song of privatization of museums, to take the museum away from the university, to transform it into a private institution. In sum, this American-style panacea that never works in Brazil.

Q: There are those who say that besides the disinterest of politicians there is also a general lack of interest by people, who believe that culture is not a priority and that money should be spent on more urgent matters. How do you see this?

A: The Museu Nacional had many visitors, partly because entry was very cheap, it was located in a popular [ie. poor] area of the city, in the middle of a well-known park. Interestingly, in this year’s Carnaval one of the samba schools had theme of the 200 years of the Museum, with allegories and costumes that evoked the mummies, the dinosaurs. The museum was part of Brazilian popular culture, or at least the Carioca culture.

Q: Despite this affective connection, the impact of the event will not be enough to change things?

A: I cannot tell. Monday night, there was a demonstration in the centre of Rio, in Cinelandia, quite large, with some twenty thousand people, mostly university students, protesting on the basis of the museum fire the government’s neglect of education and culture.

Certainly, people who are hungry and unemployed would not say that culture is the most important thing but the idea that people do not value culture is not true. It is the bourgeoisie that does not value culture, it is agri-business and ruralist factions in congress, who are interested only in destroying the country to produce soya to sell to China.

Q: Further devaluing the symbols of indigenous culture.

A: The Indians are the stone in the shoe for the dominant class, because indigenous lands are public and cannot be privatized, and the dominant class’ project is to privatize 100% of Brazilian lands. For them, the Indians are hurdle, an obstacle, even a scandal, a symbol of the backwardness of the country, when truly they should be seen as a symbol of a possible future for a country in a world that is being destroyed by so-called progress.

The Indians are those who managed to survive maintaining a way of life less suicidal, and are seen as a people of the past. One way to rebuild this museum may be to ask the indigenous peoples of Brazil to contribute with their material culture to rebuild at least the ethnology collection.

Q: Much has been said about how the fire has affected Brazil’s image in the world. Will this have an impact on the elections in October?

A: The fact that there were great global repercussions may have shaken the conscience of Brazilian politicians a little bit, and above all that of election candidates. Certainly, now that the debates between presidential elections have begun, the issue will enter the agenda. I do not doubt that everyone will speak about the Museu Nacional, now how they will say what they will say, that is very difficult to predict.

Q: With polls that show Jaír Bolsonaro as the frontrunner should Lula not compete, are we facing the possibility of a candidate even more hostile to cultural policy?

A: There is the absolute catastrophe. I am a very pessimistic person in general, but not to the point of thinking Bolsonaro will be elected. I do not believe he can elect himself President of Brazil. But he represents a large part of the population and the problem is that there are people who will vote for him, and they will remain here, and this is very sad.

Brazil is passing through a process of great political polarization, there is a subterraneous layer of fascism that would have been best left undisturbed which is mobilising. Not only in Brazil, around the whole world there is a rebirth of fascist and autocratic sentiments, and that is here represented by this repugnant candidate Jaír Bolsonaro, who defends torture, praises the dictatorship, wants to arm the population, and who inspires himself on the pathetic madman Donald Trump. If he is elected, it is the end. I will get on an aeroplane and leave – I don’t know where, but to someplace.


See the original in Portuguese here:


[Image by Felipe Milanez captioned “Fire at the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, on 2 September 2018”. Shared from Flickr via Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0]

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