The fire that burned down most of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, September 2, wiped out entire collections that had been painstakingly maintained since the museum’s 1818 opening. The African and Afro-Brazilian artifacts were among the items forever lost.
As Brazil has the second largest population of Africans — descendants of enslaved Africans in Brazil — outside of Africa, the collection played a crucial role in Brazilians’ understanding of race, and how the cultures, languages and spiritual practices of enslaved Africans shaped Brazilian culture.
The museum’s permanent African collection, named Kumbukumbu, a Swahili word meaning memory, memorial or recollection, had 700 items. One hundred eighty-five items from the collection were exhibited, according to the website Okayafrica. The items included royal sandals from the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey (now the nation of Benin), a royal Dahomey throne, and an ivory tusk carved in the 19th Century from the Congo River basin. The Dahomey items were the only representation of the ancient kingdom, which ceased to exist in the early 1900s.
The museum also preserved African and Afro-Brazilian Candomble items. Candomble is a religion that originated in 19th Century Bahia, a predominantly Black state in Brazil. It preserves some of the rituals and practices of the Yoruba, Fon and other West and Central African people. The slave “masters” who colonized Brazil were Portuguese, who were Catholic. They forbade the enslaved Africans from practicing their own religions, so the Africans pretended to worship Catholic saints and the Christian God, while secretly continuing their own rituals and beliefs. The mirror pictured here was used in celebrations of the Oxum Orisha. The museum also had dolls which represented the various orishas, or gods.
Ancient Egyptian artifacts were also part of the collection, including a mummy and coffin, as well as fragments of other Egyptian mummies.
While no determination has been made yet regarding what caused the fire, there are those who say the damage could have been lessened if Brazil’s government had provided money for repairs to the 200-year-old building. And since the building contained a lot of wood, it could have been destroyed by fire before this month. It had no sprinkler system, but the museum had finally obtained to enough money to install one before this incident.
“(The fire) could have been prevented,” said anthropologist Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima in a recent NPR interview. de Souza Lima had an office in the museum, where he kept his archives, and researched Brazil’s indigenous cultures for 38 years.
“If decades ago we have changed from the building — that was an ancient building full of wood that for — be secure for exhibitions or people to be there, should have been completely rebuilt internally and prepared against fire and against a lot of other things.”
de Souza Lima said the museum didn’t have the funds to digitize the collections.”That’s why I say I was so angry. I’m angry against our economic and technical elites, angry against politicians, decision-makers that never cared for heritage, culture and education in Brazil.”
Despite the institution’s destruction, de Souza Lima said he and others are determined to replace it. “We’ll fight to build another museum together with indigenous peoples, together with black peoples (sic) in Brazil, together with scientists from all the world . . .
“My archives are very, very small loss towards what we’ve lost as a country, as an intellectual community, as an institution,” de Souza Lima insisted. “So what can we do, (be) depressed? No, we (have to) fight.”