Brazil Is Burning!

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A fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil on September 2, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The museum, which is tied to the Rio de Janeiro federal university and the Education Ministry, was founded in 1818 by King John VI of Portugal. It houses several landmark collections including Egyptian artefacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil. Its collection include more than 20 million items ranging from archaeological findings to historical memorabilia. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

By Rafael do Nascimento Cesar

The flames that lit the sky on a warm September night in Rio de Janeiro consumed Brazil’s oldest, and perhaps most important, science museum in a matter of hours. The Museu Nacional, founded during the country’s monarchical period, was celebrating its bicentenary in 2018 when, due to an electrical malfunction and decades of infrastructural disrepair, all of its collections and objects suddenly faced the risk of disappearing forever. Most of them did.

“Tragedy” and “catastrophe” were some of the words used by the press–not to mention the museum’s staff–to describe the event’s proportions. Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, Museu Nacional’s vice-director and Professor of Anthropology at that same institution, affirmed that “200 years of memory” were lost due to lack of governmental support and “political consciousness”.[1] Aparecida Vilaça, also a Professor of Anthropology at Museu Nacional, wrote in a touching, personal statement that the image of the burnt building evoked to her a kind of immolation, “like someone setting their own body on fire as a protest for years of mistreatment”.[2] Far from Rio de Janeiro, in Brasília, a similar idea of anthropomorphic death was mobilized by the minister of the Secretary of State Carlos Marun, although motivated by quite different purposes. The day following the event, he said at an official press conference that “now that it happened, there are lots of widows weeping”. Widows that, in his opinion, seemed to be “in love” with their late husband, but in fact “didn’t love the museum that much”.[3]

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People hold a sign reading ‘Capitalism burns memory’ during a protest in front of Rio de Janeiro chamber against the Brazilian government on September 03, 2018, in Rio de Janeiro following a massive fire that ripped through Rio de Janeiro’s treasured National Museum. – The majestic edifice stood engulfed in flames as plumes of smoke shot into the night sky, while firefighters battled to control the blaze that erupted around 2230 GMT. Five hours later they had managed to smother much of the inferno that had torn through hundreds of rooms, but were still working to extinguish it completely, according to an AFP photographer at the scene. (Photo by Daniel RAMALHO / AFP / Getty Images)

The minister’s rather dismissive way of addressing such a delicate subject is not to be comprehended only as idiosyncratic–a mixture of insensitivity and poor taste–but as the manifestation of an actual political project in which the attack on culture is one of its most efficient tactics. By implying that the people who benefitted both directly and indirectly from the museum’s resources (scientists, students, and Rio de Janeiro’s denizens in general) were, after all, unfit “wives” not only distorts the sense of responsibility towards federal institutions, but reinforces, through a gendered logic, a position of subalternity supposedly shared by all institutions that, like Museu Nacional itself, contribute to build a critical view of Brazil’s current situation. Other spaces like universities, public high schools, and some sectors of the press, have become targets of relentless accusations regarding the allegedly “ideological” content of their actions. Opposing any of the government’s conservative stances became a synonym of radicalism and esquerdopatia, a made-up term that ridicules left-wing sympathizers of any sort by pathologizing their demeanor. Strangely enough, the concept of “ideology” used against opponents is deployed in the Marxist sense of false consciousness.

To be clear, the strategy of “attacking” culture is not solely a top-down political decision. A quick scan through Brazilian social media will surely show that some of the most vicious discourses on the “decadence” of morals, which include not only politics itself but an assortment of social representations and identities, are upheld by subjects of different social classes and levels of education. This means that conservatism in Brazil is not restricted to a single portion of the population and, consequently, that nobody is immune to the contradictions created in and by Brazilian society in the past decades. Likewise, the conception of “culture” cannot be an entirely  stable one, inasmuch it is a privileged vehicle for expressing the political demands of opposed groups. However, as the majority of Brazilian intellectuals and artists actively engaged in cultural production made their reservations about Bolsonaro’s election very clear, a kind of consensus is being forged about how “culture” is now located on the other side of the government. This same consensus is what incites conservatives to accuse cultural artifacts themselves of being immoral: songs, movies, books, speeches, art exhibits and performances. In the end, it all comes down to acknowledging a sentiment of stupefaction before Brazil’s staggering difference. “Culture” articulates difference that must be contained (or even exterminated) before it dismantles the “sameness” in which conservatism braces itself.

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An aerial view of the National Museum of Brazil is seen after a devastating fire on September 3, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A cause to the catastrophic fire is still unknown. The museum, which is tied to the Rio de Janeiro federal university and the Education Ministry, was founded in 1818 by King John VI of Portugal and celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. It houses several landmark collections including Egyptian artifacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil. Its collection include more than 20 million items ranging from archaeological findings to historical memorabilia. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Having this in mind, I would argue that, as well as “tragedy” and “catastrophe”, we use metaphor as another word in our attempt to understand the burning of Museu Nacional in the wider spectrum of Brazilian political crisis. To consider that event as metaphorical implies looking at the government’s present stance towards culture as systemic–the negligent behavior regarding Museu Nacional is but another way of acting. If difference produces and manifests itself through culture, then it has become evident to the supporters of this new political pact that some institutions and values must be rescued at any cost whereas others must be burnt down. The destruction of Brazil’s oldest museum and the indifference with which authorities handled it were, indeed, traumatic to those who thought that, despite alternations of power, democratic edifices would remain standing.

But whatever the attack is, and wherever it comes from, the chances of resistance are not precluded by the recognition of our vulnerability. Actually, recognizing vulnerability should be considered a condition of possibility for resistance, so that we can imagine alternative ways of responding to the ongoing political backlashes.[4] And in this sense, culture provides a means not only to imagine but to act; not only to object, but to parody; not only to mourn, but to heal.

Rafael do Nascimento Cesar is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at Campinas State University (Unicamp) and Visiting Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


[1] Available on:,incendio-atinge-museu-nacional-no-rio,70002484984. Accessed in March, 21st 2019.

[2] Available on:ólogas. Accessed in March, 21st 2019.

[3] Available on: Accessed in March 21st 2019.

[4] Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (editors). Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.


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