The Answer and the Question: Reflections on the History of the National Museum

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:50 PM
Continental C (Hilton Chicago)
Seth Garfield, University of Texas at Austin
My paper will reflect on the history of the Museu Nacional, an institution that has been both a subject and site for my academic research. Founded in 1818, Brazil’s oldest scientific institution was intended to provide the new nation with answers: how to identify the natural wealth that would enrich Brazil; how to explain natural history and comparative ethnology; how to assert Brazil’s standing in the ranks of “civilized” nations; how to edify a citizenry.

Over the course of two centuries, these answers would shift, reflecting changes in the political and intellectual climate in Brazil. From a bastion of nineteenth-century scientific racism committed to the “whitening” of the nation, the institution would become a postwar crusader for the political rights and cultural preservation of Brazil’s indigenous and marginalized populations. In recent years, however, as neoliberal policies slashed state funding for education and social services in Brazil, the Museum teetered and its fundamental nation-building mission was undermined. The catastrophic fire not only destroyed nearly ninety percent of the institution’s priceless collections, wiping out the nation’s historical patrimony. It shook the very foundations of a nation whose population has endured intolerable violence, political corruption, and social disregard. It turned the fate of the National Museum, that hilltop majestic shrine, symbol of national grandeur, and conveyer of scientific certitudes, into something history had never intended it to be: a question.