Requiem for the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro

by Carlos A. L. Filgueiras, Departamento de Química, UFMG, Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil,

Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro

The façade of the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro in late 2013

[Editor’s Note: After the tragic loss of the museum, the HSS Executive Committee asked me to reach out to our Brazilian members to see how we could help. Carlos Filgueiras sent this article and gave permission to publish it. Some suggestions for helping can be found below, through the auspices of the American Anthropological Association. The American Historical Association is working on a statement that the Society may sign.]

I find it difficult to write about the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro in this moment of profound grief for science and culture in Brazil. However, I think this must be done. I spent twelve years as a professor at the Chemistry Institute of UFRJ, the university to which the museum is affiliated. In addition to being a chemist I am also a historian of science and during that time I could develop a series of cultural activities thanks to the many notable institutions located in Rio de Janeiro and the consequent opportunity to absorb much of what those unique entities put at one’s disposal. Such an environment, with many first-rate intellectuals present, contributed decisively to many fruitful projects.

Among those entities, I had closer links to at least four: the Museu Nacional; the Museu Imperial; the National Library, one of the largest in the world; and the Brazilian Historic and Geographic Institute. I shall however limit this short text to the Museu Nacional. This is an institution with which I have been intimately acquainted, in dozens and dozens of visits to the Boa Vista Park, where it is located. The archeological collections were those with which my connection was closest, for many reasons. One of them was the elaboration of a calendar book that was to be distributed by the Chemistry Institute in early 2008. The Director of the Institute asked me to work on the project with ample liberty. I chose to use as a theme the bicentennial of the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family and the court in Rio de Janeiro in 1808, as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars.

The Royal Family settled in a mansion which with time became the palace where the King of Portugal and the Emperors of Brazil lived until 1889. King John VI founded the Museu Nacional in 1818. It is a sad coincidence that the recent tragedy occurred shortly after the celebration of the museum’s bicentennial this past June. After Brazil became a republic in 1889, the government moved the museum’s headquarters to the old Imperial Palace.

In my work on the calendar book, I used the archeological collections to showcase for the general public the museum’s countless scientific and cultural possibilities. The plan which was then devised consisted in showing the enormous variety of chemical compounds and materials employed along the centuries in different civilizations in the production of the most diverse objects, of a utilitarian, artistic, or decorative nature. I had the help of photographers and during that project my admiration and intimacy with the museum grew considerably.

After this personal introduction, I would like to give a short overview of what the museum represented and of its importance, not only to Brazil but to the world.

Precious objects

Precious objects
The Battle of Constantine vase, Silver gilt and coral, given to the museum at its founding in 1818 by King John VI

The Museu Nacional housed 20 million precious objects, which were destroyed mostly by the neglect and ignorance of succeeding authorities who were unable to develop any sense of empathy for such an institution and who ignored its meaning and importance. The museum has a very competent and dedicated staff, as I could witness countless times, but this staff was powerless to remedy so many problems, which were in many cases of a political nature.

Among the items destroyed one can mention the large Egyptian collections amassed by the Brazilian Emperors Pedro I and Pedro II, with hundreds of objects, including human and animal mummies, sarcophagi, statues, etc.; the large Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collections, most of them brought by Empress Teresa Cristina, who was a Neapolitan princess and who directed excavations in Italy in the XIXth century; countless fossils, including the oldest human fossil in Brazil; an enormous collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, both from Brazil and from Spanish America, with many Andean mummies; thousands of Andean textiles from different civilizations; the unique royal cloak of the King of Hawaii, given by the King to Emperor Pedro I in the 1820’s; in addition to many zoological, botanical, and mineralogical collections. Since the museum had been a royal residence it still contained many important items related to the history of the monarchy in Brazil, although most such items are housed in other institutions today. Even so, many paintings, furniture and other irreplaceable objects were lost.

I hope this report contributes to a greater international awareness of the calamity, which befell not only the museum but the whole world.

Egyptian collection

Egyptian collection
Left: Sarcophagus of a lady of the XXIII dynasty
Center: Necklace, ceramics
Right : Bronze Statuette of Osiris, Isis and the infant Horus

Hellenistic collection

Hellenistic collection
Left: Marble kore
Right: Alabaster Aphrodite

Pre-Columbian archaeology

Pre-Columbian archaeology
Left: Andean gold artifacts
Top Right: Ceramic bowl from Yucatán
Bottom Right: Bronze llamas

Pompeian collection

Pompeian collection
Left: Pompeian frescoes with marine animals and birds
Right: Pompeian glass — Flasks of paste glass


N.B. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has published on its web site some information on how individuals can help. AAA will announce a coordinated effort with the Smithsonian on collecting materials for the Anthropology Library and AAA’s publisher is making the entire Wiley Humanities and Social Sciences journal catalog available to people from University IP addresses for the indefinite future.

Those who wish to send materials must remember that the museum has storage issues, so it is important to contact them ahead of time as you contemplate shipping materials.