Resilient Objects: Surviving the Collapse of the Institution
In 2018, on a warm September night in Rio de Janeiro, the exposed electrical wiring of a poorly installed air conditioner short-circuited, starting a fire that destroyed most of the 20 million artifacts and natural specimens stored and displayed at the National Museum of Brazil within a matter of hours.
Inside this neoclassical imperial palace, which was built in 1803, Brazil’s oldest museum housed frescoes from Pompeii that were brought by the Bourbon princess of Naples some 40 years later; one of the largest ancient Egyptian collections in South America; ethnographic and archaeological artifacts from extinct Amazonian cultures; dinosaur skeletons; the oldest hominid skull excavated in South America; and countless natural specimens from the country’s flora and fauna. These all burst into flames or were crushed as the building’s wooden floors collapsed.
As these burning floors gave way, a time and space crunch ensued. The filing cabinets of the administrative offices on the third floor came down onto the sarcophagi of ancient Egyptian mummies, and dinosaur bones in the second floor galleries, which in turn collapsed onto the petrified wood and meteor collection on the first floor.
This fusion created what is now possibly the most unique archaeological site on earth. Within the surviving walls that frame the ground floor, the museum’s staff dug, and successfully rescued hundreds of objects—many of which had survived ancient cataclysms of their own, proving themselves to be incredibly resilient as they now waited for conservationists to piece them back together.
Archaeologists working inside the museum are immersed in a stratigraphy that produces dinosaur teeth next to Amerindian lithic charms, burnt laptops, and an ancient Egyptian statuette. They follow a collectively drawn map: staff from each department contributing their best knowledge of what was where in the storage rooms, display cases that now make up an anachronistic mass.
Each sedimentary layer within this excavation is determined not by time, but by the systems of cataloguing, arranging, and displaying objects that have been determined by the museum’s staff.
Founded on Enlightenment age principles and systems for organizing knowledge, the museum as an institution separates natural history from a Eurocentric human vision of history. The museum separates what it deems to be an artifact from the objects produced by the living and dominant culture that gets to define the point of view. In the case of a national museum, this is done under the guise of national identity, which looks increasingly obsolete.
Despite its staff's best efforts—caught somewhere between the current Brazilian neoliberal politics that are defunding public institutions and the popular cultural perception of its irrelevance—the National Museum itself has become a fossil.
The historicism employed by museums struggles to make sense of the present human experience. Postcolonial, and postmodern perspectives question the epistemologies that have historically determined differences: gender, race, and so on. Simultaneously, contemporary sciences advance a more symbiotic understanding of evolution. This reveals intertwined global life cycles as we live and think through an environment that has been altered by anthropogenic climate change.
Objects charged with the task of culturally articulating the present, which we recognize as contemporary art, are purposefully framed away from the museum’s objective systems. The white cube, a windowless art gallery, is evidently a useful construct. It dramatically raises the value of objects, offering us a more pure encounter, one that is introspective and non-didactic, thereby releasing us temporarily from the grip of historical and scientific taxonomy and comparisons, freeing us of all this human order.
There’s an excitement in contemporary art over certain anti-anthropocentric strains of philosophy, such as speculative realism. This is in part due to the fact that such strains promise the possibility of encountering objects that are unmediated by humanist ideals. They describe a reality dominated by radical object-ness. Yet, while standing in a white room with flat lighting and no windows does facilitate the sensation of being at one with a material continuum, I can’t help but wonder what kind of thinking we might be normalizing when we constantly separate objects that articulate what it means to be human today from those we use to define our past or future.
Recent ideas within contemporary anthropology, history, as well as geology—disciplines more at home in institutions like the National Museum of Brazil—propose different anti-anthropocentric ontologies. These help us rethink how we relate to our material surroundings as something that is alive in a non-biocentric sense. Radical anthropomorphism and feminist ecosophies aspire to generate a species-awareness, fusing human beings with the earth as a living ecosystem. Some artists have adopted these ideas through increasingly academic or scientific pursuits and modes of presentation. This limits one of the few spheres of human production that can operate beyond the limits of language and objectivity. Art can speak beyond these barriers, generating new metaphors while remaining immersed in a perception of reality that is more like the anachronistic mass that now occupies the ground floor of the National Museum of Brazil.
If, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the present scale of anthropogenic environmental disruption “…makes sense only if we think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life on this planet,”1 then perhaps separating contemporary art from other objects that we have used to define humanity could be problematic.
The objects we use to situate ourselves in time and space are separated from each other by different institutions. In countries like Brazil, objects that bear witness to a history some might want to erase (a history that includes the difficult legacy of colonialism, military dictatorships, and slavery), are all the more vulnerable to deliberate economic and political neglect because of the exemption of this material from the type of visibility and financial interest we associate with contemporary art.
What becomes evident is the lack of permanent, dedicated spaces within which the largely unseen collections of archaeological, anthropological, natural history, ethnographic, and folk art museums could exist free of the museum’s fixed morality and historicism. Imagine the kinds of exhibitions curated by artists that could enliven these collections if only they were allowed to wander outside such categories and academic constraints. Museum displays often present artifacts, cultures, and natural specimens that tell stories of genocide and extinction, although these also represent survival—persistently challenging our thinking with a resilience that is still alive today. We have desensitized ourselves to these narratives by institutionally enclosing them within the filing cabinets of science, simultaneously protecting our art from these same mechanisms by keeping it in an eternally “contemporary” time. Do we need a disaster in order to see ancient objects as new? To realize that they speak of the future as they survive, again and again, the events that their makers did not?
1. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 213; The University of Chicago Press.
The National Museum of Brazil’s galleries can be navigated on Google Arts & Culture, its artifacts and natural specimens digitally fossilized inside their 2018 displays.