On What Was Really Lost in the Fire

As everyone almost certainly knows by now, just over a week ago, the Brazilian Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned, with massive damage and the complete destruction of huge proportions of an extensive collection of irreplaceable artifacts, fossils, documents, and artwork. No one thinks this is anything less than a tragedy, though people have varying levels of anger about it – some seem to see it as an unfortunate accident, others (who know more about Brazil, including most Brazilians) are quick to focus rage on decades of neglect by a series of governments, who at best just didn’t care enough about maintaining this building and its contents.

I’m writing this to call attention to another level of anger, which is mainly being expressed by Indigenous people, and which I’ve briefly commented about on Twitter and elsewhere. This anger is about why we allow so much cultural knowledge and linguistic information, not to mention sacred and/or valuable artifacts, from Indigenous peoples around the world, to be housed in singular buildings run by colonial governments in the first place? Why do we accept the assumption that these organizations are inherently better at “preserving” this information than the communities themselves? Why do we uncritically act as though, despite the fact that anything in a museum is inherently removed from its context and active role in the community from which it was taken, this form of “preservation” is a priority?

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Photo by Felipe Milanez, Creative Commons License (source). In addition to showing the fire, the image includes the looming figure of Dom Pedro II, the last monarch of the colonial Empire of Brazil.

At this point it’s worth stepping back to ask who the “we” is in those above questions. There is only a certain proportion of “us” who have accepted or advocated for these things, or made these assumptions. Because as I noted, many Indigenous people reacted to this with one common statement – repatriate. Return museum materials to their rightful owners. Reprioritize – instead of emphasizing access for outside, mainly European-descended, people and some kind of ideal of “global human knowledge”, consider the needs and values of living Indigenous cultures and languages. The “we” in these discourses generally refers to white academics. So much of what was lost, the stuff that can’t be recovered (like the entire linguistics section of the museum, containing the only documentation of several languages that have no remaining speakers), was Indigenous knowledge. It’s one thing to lament the loss to our (there’s that word again) knowledge of language in general, and it’s completely another to consider what this loss means to the community that spoke that language and how devastating it is to see the elimination of essentially any chance at reawakening it.

I’m angry about this. I’m angry at governments who build museums to preserve and publicize knowledge and then neglect them. I’m angry at centuries of colonial theft that has built these museums, trapped thousands of different types of hostages inside, just waiting for the spark to light them on fire. And I’m angry at my disciplines, in which we continue to treat language documentation and preservation in buildings far away from the people who can or would use the language as a substitution for supporting reclamation and revitalization. Digitization is a major step forward, and documentary work can be done in a way that is profoundly community-oriented. But it doesn’t have to be, and there is plenty of academic reward involved in perpetuating the old “salvage” model of linguistics, the one that puts this information into archives and museums. The fire is really the logical end point of anthropology as colonial enterprise, in which we take Indigenous worlds, reduce them to paper, lock them away where they can’t be actively used, allow them to burn, and then feel sorry for ourselves because we lost that source of academic insight.

My anger is superseding most everything else as I write this, but I should say that I do understand the value of museums. Public scholarship matters, and museums serve as an excellent corrective to navel gazing research and publication circles in which we carry on an abstract theoretical debate with two or three other researchers over the course of our entire careers. Not everything in a museum, including not everything in the Museu Nacional, has been stolen from Indigenous people. I feel little guilt for deeply appreciating, for example, a museum filled with dinosaurs, and wanting to know more about the scientific discovery of knowledge about them. But at the same time, I think this conversation needs to move beyond how to create better fire proofing for a colonial museum, or how to ensure that governments care about museums in general. For some, the fire was the last stage of a loss that began a long time ago, and until it happened, too few of us in academia were engaging seriously with that loss.

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