Following the election of Jair Messias Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil, there have been a number of controversies in the country’s public life. As a former member of the Chamber of Deputies, where he represented the state of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro almost made a virtue of his confrontational approach. However, the museum sector has been largely untouched by polemics or fallings-out. Despite this, a dramatic squabble has broken out in Rio de Janeiro and the country at large due to plans that were announced earlier this year to establish a new institution. The reason? The proposed museum will be entirely devoted to the issue of slavery and that is not being welcomed by all.
Why Is Rio’s Proposed Museum Seen As Controversial?
The abduction, sale and enforced labour of African slaves is something that has featured in many museums around the Americas and Europe before. In this regard, especially when it is put into the context of Washington DC’s latest museum which is entirely devoted to African-Americans, Rio’s proposed slavery museum should not be seen as remarkable at all. However, the proposed museum will not be only focussed on slavery but on liberty, too. Indeed, the suggested name for the new institution will be The Museum of Slavery and Liberty. More tellingly, perhaps, is the fact that the panel responsible for the creation of the museum are not entirely made up of the community – and their descendants – that the establishment is supposed to be about. In fact, it is mostly white.
As such, some in the region have seen the museum as a way of Brazil whitewashing its colonial past and of representing slavery in the way that it has traditionally been viewed in the country. Brazil has often regarded its history with slavery to be much less dramatic than that of the United States or that of the French, British or Spanish empires. If anything, some in Brazil have argued that slavery was a benign influence with the Portuguese overlords operating in a disorganised manner that failed to bring about the levels of brutality that were suffered elsewhere.
In other words, some academics and museum professionals in the country are already coming out publicly against the establishment of the museum. They claim it will not offer a genuine insight into the sort of slavery that went on in the country if it places an equal focus on the so-called period of liberty following abolition as it does on the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade itself. As one former public figure, Sonia Rabello, put it, “We are discovering globally important archaeological sites in Rio,… but instead of prioritising these discoveries our leaders are choosing to proceed with their grotesque makeover [of the city]… instead.”
The History of Rio’s Attempts to Face Up to Its Past
Like other cities which took part in the slave trade, facing up to the realities of it is not something that is always easy to achieve. From the 16th century to the 19th, in excess of 5.5 million slaves were forcibly transported to Brazil, with around two million arriving at Rio de Janeiro itself. This makes the city one of the most important in the world for the slave trade when viewed as a whole. As a result, Brazil has the second biggest population of sub-Saharan Africans anywhere in the world – only Nigeria has a larger one.
And yet, the story of African-Brazilians and of slavery is one that is more-or-less untold in the city. True, there are some plaques that have been fitted at the ruins of the old slave port and there is also a so-called African heritage circuit that visitors can access via a map to see how the slave market once operated. However, there is little more to it than that. As such, a range of scholars, activists and community groups have long called for more knowledge to be shared about slavery – the objection they have to the proposed museum is that it is a huge public expense that is wide of the mark, potentially giving too much focus to harmony and benevolent slave owners than the historical reality.
The Proposed Museum Site
It was around eight years ago that construction workers happened upon Cais do Valongo, a site in the city that had seen countless people disembark as a result of the slave trade. Consequently, the wharf area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site following the work of local activists and academics who campaigned successfully for its preservation. Nevertheless, some nearby inhabitants, such as Merced Guimarães who is involved with local history, have complained bitterly about the proposed museum which will occupy this historic site. Guimarães asked why the museum should be devoted to both slavery and liberty at all, questioning the motives of those involved when so much racism is still at play in Brazilian society today.
Nilcemar Nogueira is the city’s the secretary of culture who was chosen by the city’s new mayor, Marcelo Crivella. Nogueira, who well known for coming up with Rio de Janeiro’s popular Museum of Samba, is of African-Brazilian heritage and she has gone on the record as saying the museum should occupy a 19th-century warehouse on the Cais do Valongo. According to Nogueira, the building is noteworthy because it was designed by a black engineer, virtually unheard of at the time for such a large commercial structure. Complaints about its proposed site continue, however.
The Importance of a Name
Given the various objections surrounding the racial and historical politics of the museum, another fact should not be overlooked. If Rio’s leaders are trying to sugarcoat the Brazilian experience of slavery, then they could not have picked a worse name. This is because, the initials of the museum spell out MEL which, in Portuguese, form the word for honey. Given that, for some, ignoring slavery is preferable to digging up the past and, for others, failing to acknowledge the achievements of African-Brazilians adequately, how and in what form the museum ever comes into existence is yet to be resolved.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.