19 September 2018

Museu Nacional, Brazil: can Kew assist?

On the 2 September 2018, Brazil’s Museu Nacional, and most of its collections, caught fire. This was a massive disaster, both for Brazil and for science. Kew scientist William Milliken shares how Kew can lend a helping hand.

Incalculable loss

Many of you have probably now heard about the catastrophic fire in the Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro. This collection, founded in 1818, contained 20 million items. These included cultural objects from archaeology, anthropology, zoology, geoscience, culture and ethnographic collections, among others. For science, education and the history of Brazil, this is an incalculable loss. 

Many organisations, both in Brazil and overseas, are offering help. The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) has offered financial support. Great Britain, France, Holland, Denmark, the United States, Germany and Belgium are sending specialists and/or funds. The Royal Anthropological Institute will organise a special meeting in February, to support the Museu Nacional.

Can Kew assist?

The Museu Nacional contained a large collection of ethnographic items made by indigenous people in Brazil, dating from the 19th century to now. Some of these 40,000 objects are of types no longer used, or made, by these people. It appears that most were destroyed in the fire, apart from some that were stored in an annex, and others that were sent to Brasília for an Índios: Os Primeiros Brasileiros exhibition.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection also contains Brazilian ethnographic items, including some that are no longer used by indigenous peoples. We have been working, alongside Birkbeck, University of London, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, Instituto Socioambiental and Museu Goeldi, to study Richard Spruce’s remarkable collections. These were collected in Amazonia in the 1850s, alongside herbarium collections and notebooks. Our main objectives include researching the collections, and repatriating images and texts from Spruce’s collections to Brazil. Images of these objects were put on the Reflora site hosted by the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, alongside Spruce’s pressed plant collections.

Woven wooden shield.
Shield collected by Richard Spruce and curated by the Economic Botany Collections at Kew.
Ethnology collections, Museu Nacional, Brazil.
Ethnology collections, Museu Nacional, Brazil.

This work, however, was not only destined towards science, but also to support the indigenous people who made these objects. Our 2016 workshop in São Gabriel de Cachoeira, on the upper Rio Negro, trained indigenous researchers, and included much joint discussion of the Spruce collections held at Kew. In the image shown above, the shield (Escudo do Uaupés) at the Museu Nacional was collected among the Tukano people in 1861 by Gonçalves Dias. Richard Spruce also collected one, which is stored at Kew. Luciana Martins (Birkbeck) and the Derek Jarman Lab made a video presenting different voices about this object: The Many Lives of a Shield.

Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro said that one way of remaking this museum might be to ask Brazilian indigenous peoples to contribute their material culture to at least restore the ethnology collection.

Reconstructing the ethnographic collections at the Museu Nacional should, ideally, be done by Brazilian indigenous peoples. Although this may not always be possible, e.g. when tribes have been eliminated, in other cases these communities could reproduce them. To produce new ethnographic collections among indigenous communities across Brazil, and display them in the new Museum, would also help to raise their profile in Brazil. Where the items are no longer made but are held in other collections inside and outside Brazil, we could work with indigenous people to help them reconstruct items from the past. In Europe, important collections that could fulfil this role include Kew and the British Museum, Berlin's Ethnographic Museum, the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna and the Museu de Ciência, Coimbra. All are rich in historic objects that are being newly studied; here is a another truly worthwhile objective for that research.


Greshko, M. (6 September 2018). Fire Devastates Brazil's Oldest Science Museum. National GeographicAvailable online

Terra. (2018). Instituição britânica pede que governo ajude Museu NacionalAvailable online.

Video: The Many Lives of Shield: Luciana Martins, Bea Moyes and the Derek Jarman Lab. 

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