Just over a year ago, on September 2nd 2018, the news of the fire at Brazil’s famed National Museum was broadcasting rapidly across the world. It’s difficult to erase those memories from the mind: the uncontrollable energy of the flames; the silhouettes of the statues around the roof illuminated by the inferno; staff trying desperately to rescue what they could.
Remembering the museum
A year on from the fire that destroyed their beloved museum, staff and students have found a way to both record and commemorate what it meant to them. Inspired by palaeontologist Beatriz Hörmanseder, many of them are displaying tattoos of the museum designed and donated by tattoo artist Luis Berbert. Local companies have paid for the materials.
So far, Berbert has customised the designs for 150 people, using images relating to their area of research such as a bird or insect fossil or museum number. It’s the most intimate and personal way the staff can record their relationship with the museum. It’s also a reminder that our connections to museums are not only intellectual, but emotional.
“The museum was in my skin”
It may be that our emotions are essential to remembering. The dictionary definition of “remember” includes “to know by heart”, and many cultures celebrate the heart as the place of the emotions. The ancient Egyptians revered the heart as the most important organ in the body.
Architect Marco Hermann explained in a BBC interview how heart-breaking a loss it was for the staff and how the idea of the tattoo related to his own feelings : “I cried for two days…well, I always felt like the museum was in my skin, so I decided to do this so that everyone could see the love I have for it.”
Beatriz Hörmanseder, who initiated the idea by having an image of the museum tattooed on her arm along with the number of the fossil crocodile she was studying, found it helped her to cope with the loss of her entire project. “The museum burned, I know, but I’m carrying part of this with me,” she told the BBC. She then developed a project to enable colleagues to have their museum remembered on their skin too.
Permanent and personal, the tattoos mean the bearers will always remember what their museum meant to them and how they contributed to it. It’s a symbol of how they will continue to contribute, too. They are sharing their images under #museunapele
Museums reflect our deeper connections
Museums connect us. The events of the night of 2nd September 2018 provoked shock, followed by an almost instant desire to help in any way possible. It was clear that this would be a devastating, possibly unparalleled event in terms of heritage loss.
It was a multicultural loss, since the museum contained artefacts from many cultures, from ancient Egyptian mummies to recordings of local indigenous people in Brazil that can never be replaced. However, the energy and determination to help were there as soon as the first shock was over.
Watching social media at work it was almost possible to see the networks lighting up as people began to share their own memories and records, offering their help in any way. “I have some images…I have a video…we could set up a gallery…we can recreate the museum in virtual form.” Both those who loved the museum and those who had never visited it didn’t simply sympathise – they empathised, and they acted.
The work of the museum continues
In a totally informal way, curators and museum lovers across the world began the work of reconstruction even before the extent of the damage was known. A year on, there is reason to feel optimistic that a few of the museum’s most precious items have survived.
These include fragments from the skull of Luzia, who is the oldest known human from South America. She lived about 11,500 years ago. The site where she was discovered yielded artefacts that revealed information about the earliest known people of the region.
The people of Rio have rallied round, bringing in fragments of burned documents that floated for several kilometres away from the museum. The ghostly image of text on the carbonised pieces represents an academic’s work, a student’s essay, a workshop for local people. Extraordinarily, insects from the museum’s internationally renowned entomology collection survived too, also carried away on the heat of the fire.
More than a building
“What a year,” commented museum director Alexander W. A. Kellner in the 2018 museum report, which should have been an opportunity for celebrating the bicentennial of the National Museum. “Just when the institution had decided to publish its annual report, which has not been done for quite some time, the tragedy of September 2nd, 2018 struck us.”
The indelible images on the skin of the museum’s supporters will be both a reminder and a call to future action. One museum member of staff, Igor Rodrigues, commented that he felt the museum was part of him and he was part of the museum.
With international support, the scientific work of the museum will continue. It’s to be hoped that the fire will, in the words of the British Library, be “a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our shared global heritage”. It’s also to be hoped that a lesson will be learned about the need for investment to protect that heritage. The “museum on the skin” of the supporters of Brazil’s Museu Nacional should remind the world of that, if nothing else does.
About the author – Miriam Bibby
Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.