#lutopelomuseunacional: The Museo Nacional de Brasil and how it preserved African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil

The loss of the Museo Nacional de Brasil (National Museum of Brazil) is simply devastating. As The New York Times noted “some items in the collection are irreplaceable to science, as well as the country’s national memory.”

Long before the tragic fire, Mariza de Carvalho Soares, a Brazilian historian and researcher at the CNPq/MCT (Brazilian national endowment agency), who has also been the curator of the African collection at the Museu Nacional de Brasil since 2012, underscored the importance of the museum to Brazil’s national memory because its artifacts lent “urgent voices to the need to deconstruct the memory of Africa in Brazil, a memory still trapped in the rusted chains of slavery and colonial domination.”

The following are excerpts from her chapter “Collectionism and Colonialism: The Africana Collection at Brazil’s National Museum (Rio de Janeiro)” in the book African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World edited by Ana Lucia Araujo, which help preserve the memory of this beloved institution.

#lutopelomuseunacional

“In Brazil, few museums are known to possess substantial African holdings and give them prominence. … Among the recognized institutions, the collection held at the National Museum is indisputably the oldest and one of the most significant. Its entire ethnographic collection, containing some 40,000 objects, is presently managed by the Ethnology and Ethnography Sector of the Anthropology Department (MN/DA/SEE). Most of its holdings are related to the indigenous populations of Brazil. Yet, it also includes around 700 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa, gathered under the name National Museum Africana.” (p.19)

“The most significant acquisitions of African artifacts were made during the administrations of Ladislau Netto and Roquette Pinto. Later on, Heloísa Torres gave more emphasis and resources to artifacts representing the legacy of the African presence in Brazil. But these three vibrant researchers shared a common interest not just in anthropology but also in the dynamism of cultural manifestations that transcended the sharply defined models of Western postslave society. They gave importance and prestige to the most diverse forms African-derived objects.

Africana contains important individual pieces, but what stands out in the collection are sets of related objects that, for their antiquity or rarity, deserve special attention. The great majority of the pieces were obtained through private donation, or exchange with other museums, whereas some other items were purchased. In the Sector of Ethnology and Ethnography (hereafter SEE) registry, African artifacts are listed in sequence numbers with their date of acquisition, along with all the other artifacts in the ethnographic archive. The oldest artifacts that have been identified and historically contextualized are the group of presents sent by King Adandozan of Dahomey to Prince Dom João in 1810, including the aforementioned throne. Other objects described by Graham would be equally important, but these were apparently lost.

A notable set of artifacts obtained by purchase is the group of weapons acquired in 1902, during the administration of João Baptista de Lacerda (museum director 1895–1915). It was likely Lacerda’s initiative to purchase the weapons from private collector Alfred Mocquery, who had been sent by the Paris Museum to South America as well as Africa, especially Madagascar.” (p.24)

“Among the various donated artifacts are the set of more than twenty presents from the king of Dahomey, as well as a drum with a zebra-skin head given by a certain Jorge Villares. Little is known about Villares, but it was recorded upon the drum’s entry in 1923 that he claimed the “King of Uganda” had offered him the item to be delivered to the National Museum.” (p.25)

“There are also many objects labeled as African but acquired in Brazil, which are difficult to identify properly. Such is the case of cloths purchased by Heloísa Torres in Bahia, registered as African. One of them, acquired in 1953, belonged to the wife of a Mr. Tibúrcio, member of the Brotherhood of Rosário, a Catholic lay organization for African descendants in the coastal city of Salvador. Another group of objects had been apprehended by the court police from a so-called ‘fortune-telling house,’ as the headquarters of Afro-Brazilian religious groups were known in imperial, nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. The police would regularly invade these ‘cult houses’ in search of what they considered suspicious and confiscate objects at hand as proof of the practice of witchcraft. In one such case, a list of apprehended items was sent to the National Museum bearing the title ‘List of diverse objects encountered in fortune-telling houses, rendered by the police, whose chief was the distinguished Mr. Serafim Muniz Barreto, to the court.’ Among the listed objects were some items that would have come from Africa alongside others made in Brazil by Africans and African descendants in their religious and quotidian pursuits.

Some objects in the museum’s new forthcoming permanent exhibition deserve particular attention. Each of them provides a pathway into the central issue of the role of museums as spaces of engagement with the importance of Africa in the universe of education and research in Brazil. They lend urgent voices to the need to deconstruct the memory of Africa in Brazil, a memory still trapped in the rusted chains of slavery and colonial domination.” (p.26)

This is followed by a section titled “Confronting Memory and History: Three Examples of Africana Artifacts,” which details the following:

  1. The Keaka Mask (1928)
  2. Weapons from the Zambezi River: Herero, Namaqua, and Zulu (1880–1902)
  3. The Gifts from King Adandozan to Dom João (1811)

Mariza de Carvalho Soares concludes her chapter noting the following:

“The violent methods (or in the best of cases, compulsory circumstances) that provided nearly all the objects that today constitute the Africana collection, as well as the African holdings of so many other Brazilian museums, should be brought to the fore and reconsidered. Each of these institutions has the obligation to administer with care and justice the preservation of this heritage, the material legacy of processes that came about at the cost of the blood and suffering of so many Africans. At the same time, the potential of these collections must be channeled into new meanings, marshaling the unjust past into public policies that today foster better understanding of both the history of African peoples and of the diverse connections between Brazil and Africa in the past, present, and future. The most important move at this juncture is to examine these artifacts from a new analytical perspective, to open the study of so-called ethnographic collections to the scrutiny of history. The new parameters that will help define a richer history of Africa can first be applied locally, in the sense of a newly critical gaze on the colonial practices that have too long reigned in the interior of museums themselves.” (p.37)

Araujo Heritage Book Cover

African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World was published in 2015. A 25% discount is available for the hardcover version (enter coupon code SAVE25 at checkout). There are also e-book versions starting from $8.99.

Book Details

Title African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World
Editor Ana Lucia Araujo
Book ISBN 9781604978926
Pages 428 (includes illustrations)

Mariza de Carvalho Soares is a Brazilian historian working on slavery, the African diaspora, and African history. She is a researcher at the CNPq/MCT (Brazilian national endowment agency). Since 2012, she has been the curator of the African collection at Museu Nacional (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and director of the research project Africana do Museu Nacional (2013–2015) funded by FAPERJ (Rio de Janeiro state endowment agency). In recent years, she has been a research fellow at Vanderbilt University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. She is the author of numerous chapters and articles and the author and editor of several books, including People of Faith: Slavery and African Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro (2011), which received the Roberto Reis Book Award from the Brazilian Studies Association.

Ana Lucia Araujo is a Professor of History at Howard University. In addition to having published several single-authored monographs and edited volumes, Professor Araujo has edited special issues of the journals Luso-Brazilian Review and Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage and published articles in several journals, including Slavery and Abolition, the Luso-Brazilian Review, Ethnologie Française, Ethnologies, Varia História, Lusotopie, Tempo, and the Canadian Journal of Latin America and Caribbean Studies. Professor Araujo is the general editor of the Cambria Press book series Slavery: Past and Present.

Ana Lucia Araujo