The Brazilian National Museum fire was a tragedy—but it’s hard to call it an accident

Museum staff had warned of underfunding and hazardous conditions. But in Brazil, anti-intellectualism has become mainstream
September 4, 2018

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 is a curious one, saving R$ 500,000 (about £93,000) on one of Latin America’s greatest museums, but willing to spend millions with bonuses for judges and Congressmen.

Nor was not the first historical building to burn recently. In Sao Paulo, the Portuguese Language history museum and the Latin American memorial found similar fates, as did many other smaller and less prestigious buildings—not to mention the ones that got shut down.

Brazilian culture and history are diverse, both old and new, tragic and defiant in equal intensity. Its governments have a different legacy: negligence.

Anti-intellectualism has become mainstream among the Brazilian right. Its main proponent and first place in the presidential race, Jair Bolsonaro, has made countless pledges to end the Ministry of Culture.

Bolsonaro’s brand of politics has the typical paranoia of Brazilian authoritarianism; in this case, it points the finger to a supposed communistic Bolivarian conspiracy by underpaid public school teachers.

An example is the “Nonpartisan School” project, which targets teachers who might have accidentally let their sympathies slip by talking about the dictatorship for what it is, or defending the rights of gay students to exist without being bullied.

This is a crass return to the politics of the dictatorship, where students were encouraged to report subversive teachers. But since re-democratization, it was considered to be a dying breed in Brazilian life.

Things have changed recently. The new Brazilian right feels justified in its hatred of universities, museum exhibitions, artists. When it was announced that government would cut scholarships to researchers, many celebrated it as just desserts for lazy, useless leftists—especially historians.

What will, then, happen next? History suggests a shady deal with a construction firm and a much-delayed re-inauguration on an ever-expanding budget. Rio de Janeiro will likely elect another neglectful candidate. Rampant anti-intellectualism will continue to flourish regardless of the presidential election outcome.

The fire had guilty parties, and their names are famous: they will be written in bold letters in voting machines very soon, and evidence points that they will meet not comeuppance but acclaim. Then again, it's unlikely Brazilians expected much different; most major crimes in the country go unpunished.

Even if not a single piece had been harmed, how could the museum have survived without funding or staff? The memory burns; the future hopes are never allowed to exist.