In 2018, the National Museum of Brazil was ravaged by a fire that destroyed a huge collection of irreplaceable historical artifacts. Among the 20 million items lost in the blaze were antiquities collected by the imperial family in the 19th century, amazing natural history collections, a vast anthropology collection spanning over a hundred years, and the only recordings of Indigenous people whose nations have disappeared.
In 2020, staff members at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico prepared an exhibition, originally conceived after the 200-year-old museum fire. But before the exhibition opened, the global spread of the Covid-19 virus prompted the subsequent temporary closure of the Maxwell and the exhibition, Heartbreak: A Love Letter to the Lost National Museum of Brazil, was postponed and the objects were packed away.
As the UNM campus opens again, Heartbreak: A Love Letter to the Lost National Museum of Brazil has been revived and will be on display when the Maxwell opens on Tuesday, August 17, announced Devorah Romanek, Curator of Exhibits. The show was co-curated by then-UNM grad student Jackson Larson, now a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and research assistant at the UNM Art Museum.
“The formation of this exhibition, co-curated by Jackson Larson, with myself, was a way for us to give back, to be part of a global movement of documenting Amazonian museum collections around the world and making that public, as a response to the loss of the National Museum of Brazil,” Romanek explained.
The exhibition features roughly two dozen items, including personal adornment such as feather headdresses and necklaces, and utilitarian objects with symbolic decoration, such as stools, manioc graters, baskets, and blow guns.
Romanek says it’s hard to pinpoint the most important item in the exhibition but noted, “I am most interested in the ‘soldiers cap’ made of margay fur, and what it might say about social struggle and the threat that Indigenous people in the region have faced for hundreds of years, since the arrival of colonizers.”
“I think this exhibition, modest as it might be in size, offers so much to think about in terms of the world we are living in now... It asks visitors to reflect on what the loss of the Amazon rainforest would mean for us all too, as that all hangs in the balance as I respond to these questions.”
Devorah Romanek, Maxwell Curator of Exhibits
In the interim since the pandemic began, lives have changed, here in New Mexico, in the Brazilian Amazon, and around the world. The impact of the pandemic has been particularly severe in Brazil and on Indigenous communities of the South American Amazon.
Romanek noted that on June 15, 2020, a second devastating fire hit a Brazilian museum, the Museum of Natural History and Botanical Gardens of the University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte caught fire, with devastating losses. Three storage rooms that held a part of the 260,000-piece anthropological, botanical, and archival collections of one of Brazil’s oldest university museums were damaged. This fire, like the one at the National Museum, was due to neglect and underfunding.
Ultimately, both fires can be attributed to the current state of political affairs in Brazil, she said, explaining that the government of Jair Bolsonaro has dramatically cut funding to the arts, culture, and education, and has implemented increasingly hostile measures towards both Indigenous peoples and the environment. Brazil is among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, with one of the world’s highest death rates. This too is in part due to the governmental response to the virus. Its policies have particularly neglected Indigenous citizens, who have experienced significantly higher rates of infection and death than non-Indigenous Brazilians.
Additionally, Romanek said, there is evidence that the government has used pandemic disruptions as an opportunity to intensify attacks on Indigenous leaders, expand encroachments on their lands, and facilitate increasingly rapid destruction of the Amazonian forest. In the meantime, previous tactics that have been employed towards these same ends are ongoing, with miners attacking Indigenous villages and laws that undermine the protection of the environment being passed as of spring 2021.
“And this is where things stand at the moment in the Brazilian Amazon, with the situation changing from minute to minute,” Romanek observed, concluding, “Two great Brazilian museums have been lost or greatly damaged. The Indigenous peoples of Brazil are under continued and intensifying threat. And the Amazonian forest they inhabit is rapidly disappearing. These are dangers for the Indigenous people of Brazil, for all Brazilians, and really, for all of us the world round.
“We at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology hope you enjoy and celebrate the beautiful cultural objects here on display, and hope you, like us feel pain and alarm regarding these events, and feel moved to act on your concerns… It is a relief to finally open this exhibition. My greatest wish about it is that I wish we had better news to share about the situation in Brazil since the pandemic took hold, but we don't,” she concluded. “I do take courage, however, from the Indigenous Brazilians highlighted in the exhibition who are currently working to make the planet a better place, for the sake of their own survival, and for the survival of us all.”