By Monique Sager and Sean Turner
The Museo Nacional de Brasil, otherwise known as the National museum, is the site of the former palace of the royal family. The house that now houses the museum was built in 1818 in the era of imperialism. The royal family was quite interested in the natural sciences, as global exploration was becoming fashionable. They decided to collect natural specimens, fossils, dinosaur skeletons and even meteorites to establish their own natural history museum. In doing so, the royal family was attempting to put Brazil on the same level as cosmopolitan cities such as Paris and New York that were becoming world leaders in the natural sciences. The Brazilian elite in the 19th century were determined that Brazil, and Rio specifically, would become a global destination and a leader in knowledge, style and design. The Museo Nacional is a decidedly cosmopolitan museum in the style of other global museum, yet also uniquely Brazilian.
For instance, the Museum only features artifacts from Brazil. Collections include dinosaur skeletons dug up in the country in 1800’s, meteorites found in the wilderness, and many fossils from dried up streams and rivers. Thus, while these items may be the same items featured in Parisian natural history museums, for example, by being sourced only from Brazil they promoted the idea of an independent and scientifically significant country. The museum puts Brazil on the same level as mega cities and touts its own ability to produce items of scientific merit. Brazil adapted the idea of a local natural history museum to its own needs.
The items featured in the museum help illustrate the Brazilian national image at the time. The royal family collected artifacts from indigenous peoples, and they are displayed alongside fossils. This shows the visitor that Brazil categorizes its native peoples as ancient history, nearly extinct. Yet DNA testing shows that nearly all Brazilians are a mix of indigenous, African and European genes. Furthermore, the ‘Indian’ customs and traditions have shaped many aspects of Brazilian culture and folklore. The Royal family tried to emphasize Brazil’s ties to Europe rather than its indigenous roots in an effort to seem sophisticated.
The transition from Royal Palace to National Museum also marks a significant shift in how Brazilians believe they should be represented throughout the world. Previously, the Royal Palace was the symbol of European influence and European control as the seat of power for the Portuguese monarchy in Brazil. The daunting architecture and elevated location are both indicative of this ruling force which served to provide structure politically for the Brazilian people, but also symbolized the oppressive tendencies of monarchical rule over colonized territories. This parallels the moods felt throughout North America as the colonizers there fought for independence from the powers of Britain. This undoubtedly influence the ideologies of Brazilian civilians as many intellectuals and oppressed sought freedom through revolution and republic.
However, this should not hold complete sway over our perceptions of the monarchy because it was the King of Portugal, Dom João VI who established the National Museum in 1818 – then referred to as the Royal Museum – in an attempt to promote the general prominence of Portugal as well as its colony. This was spurred by mass appropriations of artifacts from around the world and from Brazil which would be showcased at the National Museums initial location in Campo de Santa Anna. The coup of the late 19th Century marked a new era in the pursuit of a national image as the leaders of the new Republic moved to erase all traces and symbols of the old empire. This included the royal palace which was the most dramatic symbol of them all. But instead of tearing down this remnant of the monarchy, it was decided after the coup in 1889 to transfer the contents of the National Museum to the Paço de São Cristóvão where the collection has be displayed ever since.
This act is representative of the strong influence that re-appropriating symbols can have on a national image. The coup, which was largely an intellectual battle led by members of the Positivist Church, fought to establish a new future and a new epoch of Brazilian historian; however, they still remained aware of the importance of past influence. Therefore, the society which they were attempting to bring into the world would be one which largely drew from its past colonial experience. To forsake this history would be to disrespect the heritage of the Republic and the ideals upon which it was founded. This is central to the societal values of Brazil, even though current attitudes reflect more of a forward-looking mindset with little regard for the past of Brazil. Regardless, all of these aspects play significant roles in the development of Brazil’s political and national persona, and the history of the National Museum is just one representation of the influences that are changing these worldviews.