Museu Nacional and Popular Representation


On 3 September I created a Twitter thread about the destruction of Brazil’s Museu Nacional. The tragedy was entirely man made; the fire was the result of years of government neglect. Thank goodness no one was physically harmed. Yet the harm to employees’ livelihoods, to researchers’ work, and to human knowledge is real and incalculable.

Museums, historical societies, archives, and libraries around the world are in similar fixes–some are merely slow motion disasters.

Anyway, here are the tweets, in a more easily read format:


I am not sure we will ever be able to process the loss of Brazil’s #MuseuNacional. It’s not only a loss of specimens, documents, artifacts; it’s the loss of future discovery and knowledge, not only by scholars examining the collection but by visitors sating their curiosity. /1

Many people consider #museums “attics”–the @smithsonian, for example, is the US’s “national attic.” When a museum sells a “beloved” artifact there’s always a hue and cry about it. Think, for example, of Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” and the recent case of the Berkshire Museum. /2

“Attic” assumes dust, neglect, nostalgia, even an amnesia to be restored through discovery. #museums /3

The use of “attic” is a “displaced meaning” strategy: the stored and displayed objects considered so culturally meaningful that they have been “deliberately … removed from the daily life of a community and relocated in a distant cultural domain.” (McCracken, 104) /4

What “attic” does in real life is remove objects & the responsibility to care for them from the here & now. When collections are threatened by loss, sale, or damage is when the broader public raises its voice, because the ideals & identities #museums store are under siege. /5

What “attic” does is hide from view the costs of professional care of collections. Proper climate control, shelving, housing, and expertise extend objects’ uses into the future. Yet highly trained #museum workers are paid poorly. The field suffers from a built-in classism. /6

And then there’s the issue of peoples without attics–i.e., history. As sociologists and anthropologists have shown, those who struggle economically don’t often have the luxury of thinking about and saving for the future, passing along wealth to future generations. /7

That also means that the poor and struggling don’t have the luxury of thinking about a usable past with which to place themselves in history–and see themselves in #museums, even as many of them pay taxes for public institutions in their towns and cities. /8

Over the last 50 years #museums have been struggling to shift from another stereotype: temple. Rather than a place for adoration, the museum is now a forum, a town square, a place of civic debate. At least that’s how many US museums are redefining themselves. /9

Given #museums’ financial struggles, this strategy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, programming is cheaper, as are exhibitions with fewer objects and open-ended, community interpretation. These are good things. /10

On the other, collections are given short shrift, smaller budgets, & fewer trained personnel. So, even in nations (such as the US) with reasonably stable economies, collections are at risk, even as people endow #museums w/ responsibility of caring for the people’s treasures. /11

Such is the paradox of #museums in 2018. As we mourn the loss of the #MuseuNacional’s incomparable collections, we need to redouble efforts not just to fund education and museums but work for a just and equitable socioeconomic system re-situated in knowledge and security. /12

I write as a material culture scholar and as a former #museum curator at @michiganstateu Museum. The Museum’s recent strategic plan ignores cultural collections and diminishes professional staff expertise as it forwards technologies and programming unrelated to collections. /13

(By the way, the director has twice told me he thinks the #museum’s history collection is “kitsch.” Not what he says to donors and university officials and the public, I imagine. Diminishing collections is a strategy to control interpretation.) /14

I gave many, many collections tours and worked with many classes during my employment there. I know firsthand what objects presented in relationship to each other do to elicit curiosity and build knowledge. @lubar has written about this need and process:…/museums-need-collections-and-connectio… … /15

Museums are not attics. Their collections are not dusty nor nostalgic nor unused. Curators collect objects not only due their historical and aesthetic value. Curators don’t hoard duplicate specimens “just in case.” Curators collect for future breakthroughs and for new ideas. /16

The extent of the #MuseumNacional loss will never be known: how does one calculate the future knowledge that would have been gained in that collection? Let us grieve this tragic loss to the world’s knowledge. Then let us renew our efforts to re-frame museums as a public good. /17

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