The Tech and Design Issue
After a fire destroyed thousands of Indigenous artifacts, the curators of this Brazilian museum are adopting a radical new approach.
Valdomiro Osvaldo Aquino, a Guarani-Kaiowá leader, in Mato Grosso do Sul.Credit…Luisa Dörr for The New York Times
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Mariana Lenharo and
On the evening of Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro was closed, and its hallways were empty. Silent activity, however, coursed within its walls. Electricity hummed through wires connected to computers; climate-controlled storage and three air-conditioning units connected, improperly, to a single circuit breaker in the ground-floor auditorium. When one unit most likely received a surge of electricity it couldn’t handle, the overburdened system sparked. The museum’s smoke-detector system was not set. There were no sprinklers or fire doors, and a flame bloomed. Seeing the news, staff members rushed to the building and pleaded with firefighters to let them enter and rescue something — anything. Within hours, the entire neoclassical colossus built in the early 1800s was ablaze.
Errors — some so small they were hardly noticed, others unforgivably avoidable — led to a conflagration that destroyed Latin America’s most renowned natural-history museum and most of its 20 million artifacts. Much of what was lost or severely damaged was irreplaceable: the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian priestess, a 110-million-year-old fossilized turtle, a vast collection of butterflies, the oldest known human remains in Latin America.
The fire also obliterated an enormous assemblage of artifacts representing the cultural history of Brazil’s Indigenous populations. Masks, vases, weapons, mortars and elaborately feathered ceremonial capes dating back at least a century from the Ticuna, the Kadiwéu, the Bororo, the Tukano — at least 130 peoples in all — were gone. Researchers worked to salvage what they could from the ashes. Astonishingly, a few ceramic vases kept their original paint. One Karajá animal sculpture was found almost intact. But most “were fragments, scraps that would no longer be recognized by the people who made them,” says João Pacheco de Oliveira, the head of the museum’s ethnology and ethnography division. When Ananda Machado, a social historian at the Federal University of Roraima, told members of the Wapichana people about the fire, they were devastated. “To them, these objects were much more than material,” she said; they carried with them the strength of the people who made them. The fire, Oliveira wrote, was a “holocaust of a national memory.”
In 2018, after 40 years with the museum, Oliveira planned to retire. But the fire pushed those plans aside. Even while mourning the tragedy, he saw possibility. Yes, the ethnographic collection was in some ways unparalleled, but he had long been vexed by what was missing from it. Many objects were collected by European travelers in the 19th and early 20th centuries who didn’t grasp the purpose that the objects served. A pot or a cape might have been chosen simply because it seemed beautiful or peculiar to a Western eye. As a curator, he found this lack of cultural context deeply frustrating.
As an anthropologist, Oliveira was even more troubled. Since the 1970s, he has spent long periods with the Ticuna in northern Brazil trying to understand them on their own terms and to communicate their culture to a wider world. The museum was an important vehicle for his aims, but the institution came with its own inglorious history. As with other 19th-century museums, the National Museum was a repository of items plucked, purchased or plundered from Indigenous communities and had presented the people themselves as curiosities, papier-mâché figures in dioramas alongside taxidermied animals. And sometimes worse. The biggest draw of an 1882 exhibition were living members of the Botocudo and Xerente tribes on display for the entertainment of visitors.
The fire incinerated the vestiges of that colonial history too. For Oliveira, the destruction was also a chance to start over and try something radical: asking Indigenous peoples what they wanted.
With no building to return to, Oliveira met with his team members on park benches and in cafes and explained his vision for a new collection. Indigenous people would be consulted not only about what items would go into the museum but also on how they should be identified, stored and exhibited. One of the first people he turned to was a former student named Tonico Benites.
Benites grew up in Mato Grosso do Sul in midwestern Brazil on a reserve for the Guarani-Kaiowá, one of the country’s 305 surviving Indigenous groups. His parents never learned to read and write, but he finished high school and went on to study for a degree in education, picking up work on the side as an interpreter for anthropologists. Drawn to the questions the researchers asked, he applied to a master’s program in social anthropology offered at the museum.
Benites’s first visit to the museum in 2006 was also his first day as a student there. Entering the ethnographic exhibition area, he saw a collection of spears and arrows and then rounded a corner. He froze, sickened. Covering an entire wall was an outsize reproduction of a woodcut from a 1557 book by the German explorer Hans Staden. The account of Staden’s captivity by the Tupinambá was immensely popular in its day, and some scholars now assert that its sensational depictions of cannibalism were used to justify European conquest of Indigenous peoples. “Right away, when you walked into the room,” Benites recalls, “you would see that image of Indigenous people eating and tearing others to pieces.”
Benites raised his concerns with Oliveira, who was his research adviser. Oliveira sympathized but suggested that Benites use his research to change people’s minds. The image was removed months later, but almost a decade would pass before Benites, who had just finished his anthropology Ph.D. — the first Indigenous person to do so at the museum — began research for what he hoped would be a Guarani-Kaiowá exhibition. The fire decimated his plans, but the work he had done and his unique perspective as a respected member of his community made him a natural choice for helping to rebuild the museum’s collection.
The absence of Indigenous perspectives in exhibitions about Indigenous people has been acknowledged, if rarely remedied, at natural-history museums. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City recently reopened its Northwest Coast Hall in collaboration with the 10 Indigenous communities represented. But even that ambitious effort was haunted by the past. Haa’yuups, head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h of the Huupa‘chesat-h First Nation, on Vancouver Island in Canada, who was appointed as the co-curator of the exhibition, provided context and wording for labels, among other things. But the objects themselves, he says, rightfully belong to the communities from which they were extracted years ago. “The things I want to do are almost in opposition to what they want to do,” he says. “I want to carry those treasures home. They want to keep them and exhibit them.” (The museum says it is exploring “limited repatriation.”)
Unlike Indigenous groups in other countries, those in Brazil have traditionally maintained a sense of ownership over the museum, which was conceived as a museum of the nation’s history as well as of natural history, Oliveira says. Even the Wapichana, so distraught by the loss of their heritage, have committed to working with curators. Had there been arguments over ownership of older objects, the fire, in its indiscriminate destruction, made them moot. The National Museum has a unique opportunity, says Mariana Françozo, an associate professor of museum studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Museums in Europe would find it difficult to build a collection entirely based on collaboration, she says, “because they still have the old collections that carry the weight of colonialism.”
Starting in 2018, Oliveira, Benites and others began reaching out to Brazil’s Indigenous communities. Developing relationships and trust around collaboration requires “intense partnership,” Oliveira says. So far, his team is working with about 20 Indigenous groups — a much smaller number than were previously represented in the museum.
Benites travels between Rio and Mato Grosso do Sul, discussing which items the Guarani-Kaiowá want to include and how to store and describe them. Guarani-Kaiowá artisans have already made new objects especially for the collection, like a head adornment called a jeguaka, and a takuapu, a bamboo percussion instrument, which women play in religious ceremonies. The museum compensates the artisans for these custom-made items. But people have also donated deeply personal objects. An aging prayer woman donated the feather skirt she wore for 15 years in ritual ceremonies she is no longer able to perform. A couple gave the museum the tools used to pierce their son’s lip during a three-month coming-of-age ceremony. He was among the last group of boys in the village to undergo the ritual, in 1992, because the elders who knew how to officiate the practice have died. For these donors, the museum serves as a repository not just of traditional practices and rituals but also of intimate memories. In deciding which objects will be held by the museum, they decide, by extension, the stories they want to tell.
Those stories are often also inflected with the community’s present-day struggles. Since the 1920s and more intensively since the 1960s, non-Indigenous farmers have moved onto fertile Guarani-Kaiowá land. The Guarani-Kaiowá were forced onto reserves, like the one Benites grew up on. Tens of thousands of people now live in poverty on small parcels often without a safe water supply. Recently, however, they have pushed back, establishing small villages, or tekohás, off the reserves on land identified as part of their traditional territory by the national agency for Indigenous people. That land is often being farmed by others, including agribusinesses. Deciding who has legal ownership can take years of appeals, and the movement to reclaim Indigenous territory has been met with violence. Over the past few years, multiple Guarani-Kaiowá prayer houses — large, thatched structures used for religious events, festivities and community meetings — have been set on fire in Mato Grosso do Sul. In 2018, when Benites told Guarani-Kaiowá communities about the National Museum fire, they expressed sympathy rather than anger. They assumed the fire had been deliberately set by people who wanted to destroy the Indigenous artifacts housed within. “For the Guarani-Kaiowá, somebody got there, didn’t like what they saw and set the place on fire,” Benites says. “Because this is what it’s like here.”
Genito Gomes, the current leader of Guaiviry, a tekohá in Mato Grosso do Sul, has held onto one symbol of that struggle for years: a tamangá, a flat wooden weapon that symbolizes strength and protection. It had belonged to his father, Nísio Gomes, who led a group of Guarani-Kaiowá to reclaim Guaiviry from farmers in 2011. Later that year, a group of masked gunmen attacked the camp, ambushing and murdering Nísio. Genito kept his father’s tamangá carefully stored, a family treasure that Genito’s own son hoped to inherit one day. But when Benites came around with the idea of the Guarani-Kaiowá collection, Genito decided it should go to the museum.
The National Museum edifice is currently under reconstruction. Its walls have been reinforced, its facade has been restored and its interior is being redesigned. It won’t reopen to the public until 2027, but Oliveira plans to exhibit the new ethnographic collection sooner. “The Indigenous people expect something more immediate, and we would like to meet those expectations,” he says. The first exhibition, planned for 2024 in a location yet to be decided, will be curated by Benites, focused on the Guarani-Kaiowá. It will be called “Territory Under Dispute.”
When we met Genito Gomes in the prayer house of his community, he recalled a conversation he had with his son about his father’s weapon. “In the future, in 200 or 300 years, his grandson and other people who have not been born yet will see in the museum the fight of his grandfather and my father, and how we are living in this moment,” he told us. He began to cry. “That’s why we donated this tamangá that my father had even before he was born.”
Gomes envisions his father’s tamangá as the focal point of a room, displayed in front of a large photograph of Nísio, so that all visitors know to whom that weapon belonged.
Ticuna mask In Ticuna culture, after a girl’s first period, she will isolate and receive instruction in Ticuna life from her mother. This culminates in a worecü ceremony marking the transition to womanhood. There the girl’s family performs a dance to cast away spirits, which are represented by masks like this one, generally worn by men. This mask, donated in 2022 to the National Museum, is made from wood from the balsa tree.
Xirus The cross-shaped xiru is one of the most sacred artifacts in the Guarani-Kaiowá tradition, thought to sustain the ground and prevent it from falling apart. The belief system holds that the Kaiowá’s first deity created the earth by laying the xiru eastward and stepping on it. On the right, a xiru is mounted in the ground in front of a prayer house in Jaguapiru, supported by an altar. On the left, Valdomiro Osvaldo Aquino, in Panambizinho, holds a xiru that was made many years ago by a Guarani-Kaiowá religious leader. It has been in Valdomiro’s family for several generations.
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.
Mariana Lenharo is a Brazilian science journalist based in the United States. Meghie Rodrigues is a freelance science journalist and a founder of the Brazilian Network of Science Journalists and Communicators. Luisa Dörr is a photographer based in Bahia, Brazil. She works on stories about women and cultural traditions.
The Tech and Design Issue