Museum staff had warned of underfunding and hazardous conditions. But in Brazil, anti-intellectualism has become mainstreamby Julia Blunck / September 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
The first thing to burn were memories. Physical registries of history were gone in minutes. Written documents dating from early Portuguese colonization and a vast archive of the Portuguese-Brazilian monarchy, never digitized, mixed into the black smoke.
It wasn’t simply colonizers’ bookkeeping being erased from memory. This was a democratic tragedy: registries of Brazilian indigenous people burned too, alongside testimonials on the lives of slaves, fossilized remains, mummies, pottery, and an undisclosed number of other artefacts from among the 20 million pieces that composed the Brazilian National Museum’s collection.
As the fire raged, another sort of memory went up in smoke. The 200-year-old museum was one of the few places in Rio de Janeiro where rich and poor Brazilian children were equal, excitedly rubbing elbows to see dinosaurs and crowns with the same sense of wonder.
It might seem symbolic that a museum burns down just as Brazil tries to rewrite its own past regarding the military dictatorship—but the fire was not a poetic touch by an overdramatic god. It was a foretold crime: the museum was struggling despite its cheap admission price, affected by the thefts and pickpockets around it as well as a flagging Rio de Janeiro economy.
Above all was the issue of funding. Though successive governments have shown little interest in culture, the situation got increasingly desperate in the past four years.
Since 2014, the Brazilian government had enacted austerity measures—first in its soft touch version, by Rousseff, and then in its brutal form by current president Michel Temer.
The National Museum had warned as early as May that without proper funding, it would have to close its doors. Researchers and employees told the press about hazardous conditions and precarious arrangements, only to be met with the common response that these were difficult times.
A director at the museum has since told the press that a new modernisation plan would have included upgrading fire prevention equipment, but that the upgrades would only have taken place after the October election.
After the fire, museum employees tried to salvage what they could from the charred building; president Temer wrote a tweet.
An argument could be made that Brazil needed hard austerity measures given the previous mismanagement of the economy. If that is the case, Brazilian austerity…