Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 27 November 2020

How Brazil’s National Museum is rising from the ashes: 'All I need are slips of paper'

As thoughts turn to the restoration of Notre-Dame, we speak to Alexander Kellner, director of the Rio de Janeiro institute, which suffered a similar fate

The burnt-out shell of Brazil’s oldest museum on September 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. AFP
The burnt-out shell of Brazil’s oldest museum on September 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. AFP

The fire that raged through the Notre-Dame cathedral was an eerie echo of last year’s tragedy in South America when the National Museum of Brazil was eviscerated by uncontrollable flames. Both were national treasures that seemed immune to the kind of chance destruction they weathered. The situation of Rio’s National Museum sheds light on the kind of path the reconstruction of Notre-Dame will take, with one key difference: money.

As pledges for donations pour forth for ­the Parisian landmark, the National Museum of Brazil finds itself beset with the same problem that contributed to the fire in the first place: the lack of funding for the stately museum.

Indeed, one of the most horrific elements of the National Museum disaster was the way in which the museum itself saw the tragedy coming. Museum director Alexander Kellner had not been in the job a year when the fire broke out. One of his first acts in the role had been organising better safety provisions, including fire prevention classes.

Kellner, a respected paleontologist who has named 30 species of dinosaurs, recognised the threat early on. He went to the media to publicise the museum’s lack of budget, and then reached an agreement with the Brazilian Civil Defence to lead fire prevention classes.

Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum of Brazil, speaks at Culture Summit 2019. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum of Brazil, speaks at Culture Summit 2019. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Just five weeks after he stepped into his role, the museum held its first class. When none of its professorial staff showed up, Kellner badgered them at meetings. In the end, the Civil Defence managed to train almost 100 members of staff in fire prevention and immediate safety measures.

“That allows me to say if the fire had happened during the week, we would have either controlled it, or at the minimum, we would have saved most of our collection,” he says. The fire was on a Sunday. “It’s a nightmare for everyone. It just came true.”

Kellner was in Abu Dhabi for the Culture Summit to speak about the prospects for museums whose heritage has been endangered or destroyed. He was also seeking funding from the UAE to help him rebuild.

The National Museum of Brazil fire started on September 2, 2018, when an improperly installed air-conditioning unit ignited a blaze that tore through the 200-year-old structure. The museum is housed in the former palace of Brazil, which had been home to its first emperors while the country was still a Portuguese colony. In 1889, a coup d’etat deposed the then-ruler, Dom Pedro II, and a republic was installed in his place. The revolutionaries wrote the constitution in the former imperial palace and, two years later, invited the National Museum to take up residence there.

“It’s almost unbelievable that Brazil would not have cared for that museum,” says Kellner. “Not for the museum, but for the history. Brazil has not had a very long history, but the history that it had, particularly the one linked with Europe, was linked to that building. If there were one building to protect, it would be that one.”

In addition to the safety measures that Kellner had brought attention to, the museum itself had also been slowly diversifying where its collection was kept, and moving artefacts to different sites. Firstly because it was growing and needed more space, and secondly because it recognised the dangers of having its entire holdings in one place. So far, they had moved the department of vertebrates and the department of botany, but progress was slow. “We had been doing this for 30 years,” Kellner says. “Not 30 years because we were lazy. Thirty years because we had no money.”

Now, of course, the museum is in the unenviable position of having to pay many more times the amount it might have needed to – and even if it succeeds in reconstruction, it will never be able to recover what was lost. It had strong international holdings, such as Egyptian mummies and archaeological material from Pompeii, but where it excelled was in the anthropological collections from South America, including items from cultures that have now disappeared: masks, recordings of expired languages, shell-mound artefacts, pottery and featherwork all went up in flames and is impossible to collect again.

Featherwork that was destroyed in the blaze. AFP
Featherwork that was destroyed in the blaze. AFP

A team of around 60 anthropologists, archaeologists and paleontologists worked to sift through the remains of the museum, and recovered around 2,000 fragments – including around 80 per cent of the skull of Luzia, the oldest human found in the Americas, who was part of an ethnic group living there 11,500 years ago.

A 5.8-tonne space rock from Bahia has also been found, as well as dolls from a small tribe in central Brazil, and an axe from the north-eastern state of Maranhao. The future museum will preserve the palace’s facade and an entirely new interior, up to speed with contemporary safety standards and exhibition display needs, will be erected. Kellner is against reconstruction of what was there – “it would all be fake,” he says – but in some key areas of the palace, such as the emperor’s former throne room, they will attempt some historical reconstruction.

I didn’t sign up for his job, to pull the museum out of this, to reconstruct. Life just throws you in a situation.

Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum of Brazil

This is actually the museum’s second violent episode: after the popular ruler Dom Pedro II was expelled, the incoming government destroyed his effects in the palace, rather than preserving them for historical continuity. This history will now have a greater presence in the museum, though it will keep its core focus on natural history and anthropology.

Since the fire, the museum has still been operating in some small buildings within the National Museum park, which will remain part of the museum complex when the palace building is restored. When that will be is impossible to tell. Added to the chronic problems of a lack of funding in Brazil is the country’s new political climate. In January the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro came to power, and almost immediately dissolved the Ministry of Culture, folding it into the Ministry of Social Development along with two other departments.

The National Museum, pictured one day after a massive fire ripped through the building. AFP
The National Museum, pictured one day after a massive fire ripped through the building. AFP

Since 1946, the National ­Museum has been part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which means it falls under the direction of the Ministry of Education. That minister is also new, and ­Kellner is making his case there, but faces a chicken-and-egg scenario where he needs proof of support from the ­Brazilian government for a new building in order to secure international donations for the reconstruction – and pledges of international support in order to secure promises from the Brazilian government.

“All I need are slips of paper,” he says. “People saying maybe, when you are ready, we might consider donating. With these letters we can twist some arms in the government. Brazil has to deserve these materials, and in order to deserve it, we have to say we have an area with the best safety precautions and employees, and space for the new collections. Otherwise we are not worthy of the material that people want to give us.”

So far, despite the outpouring of sympathy from the shocking images of the fire, there has been little tangible support. Germany has led the way with the largest pledge, of $11 million (Dh40.3m), and behind them, the US and the UK have promised some support, with 14 fellowships for Brazilian scientists funded by the Smithsonian Institution and support promised from the British Council. Kellner held meetings with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, which has made safeguarding endangered heritage a priority, and last week, DCT Chairman Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak announced that the department would be offering support in some capacity, though details have not been confirmed.

View of pieces on display at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 9, 2017. - A massive fire on September 2, 2018 ripped through Rio de Janeiro's treasured National Museum, one of Brazil's oldest, in what the nation's president said was a "tragic" loss of knowledge and heritage. Even before the embers had begun to cool early Monday, grief over the huge cultural loss had given way to anger at across-the-board budget cuts threatening Brazil's multi-cultural heritage. (Photo by Erwan LE BOURDONNEC / AFP)
Pieces on display at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, before the fire. AFP

Throughout the week of Culture Summit, Kellner was never without his “#Museu Nacional Vive” (“The National Museum Lives”) badge. He now makes the case for his museum wherever he goes, and speaks about the tragedy with a mixture of anger, sadness and resolve.

“If I could I would run away,” he says. “But there is something my sons and many people said, that it’s good I am the director, because I am pushy. This is correct. There’s no question that among the museum staff I’m one of the few who could handle this situation. The only problem is, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t sign up for his job, to pull the museum out of this, to reconstruct. Life just throws you in a situation. What do you do? What can you do? Just work. That’s my mission for life now. At best I can reconstruct the museum. And I will.”

Updated: April 17, 2019 05:36 PM

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