Aline Montenegro, Fernanda Castro & Lorena Sancho-Querol
The keyword Invisibilised Heritage emerged during the research at the National Historical Museum (NHM), in Rio de Janeiro in the context of an ECHOES research line in decolonial educational practices in national museums. We seek to understand which educational practices are being created and used on both sides of the Atlantic to counter colonial museology.
With this goal in mind, we refer to decolonial education as proposed by Catherine Walsh, who inspired by Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon, stated that: “Critical interculturality and decoloniality… are projects, processes and struggles that conceptually and pedagogically intersect, encouraging forces, initiatives and ethical perspectives that question, transform, shake, rearticulate and build. This force, initiative, agency and practices give basis for what I call the continuation of de-colonial pedagogy” [Walsh 2009: 25].
The NHM is the largest of all the Brazilian museums under the Ministry of Citizenship. The first history museum in Brazil has some of the most relevant collections from the colonial and imperial period and, above all, it has the mission of democratizing history and heritage hand in hand with society.
The definition of this keyword is connected with the paradigm shift that results from the recognition of the intangible dimension of cultural heritage [UNESCO 1989; UNESCO 2003]. The reason is simple: it reflects the rupture with a hierarchical and socially exclusionary vision of heritage and, at the same time, a profound social activation of the concept that manifests itself in the participation of communities in its definition, application and contemporary uses.
In such a scenario, the Invisibilised Heritage is the one presented in the museum context through its material component, whose values, uses and meanings have not been socially and culturally analyzed as linked to the various individuals and groups associated with it throughout history. Thus, in the process of musealisation some of these uses and meanings are premeditatedly ignored, because they are considered dissonant or the target of “discordance or lack of agreement and consistency in relation to their meaning" [Tunbridge and Ashworth 1996: 21] due to the fact of being related to a taboo history.
From this perspective these questions move us a step forward:
- Which past and which subjects represent these dissonant heritages in their museological setting, and how do they represent them?
- What social and cultural consequences arise from the fragmented and/or partial historical readings and narratives, characteristic of a selective museology of silenced intersubjectivities?
- How can we create fully plural narratives, which make visible the pluriversity of worlds that underlie the existence of each of these heritages, and that recognize and legitimize other readings of this “geography of emotions” [Proglio 2019]?
Looking at museums´ history, we can speak of the existence of a “traditional museology” until the end of World War II, as “one that comes from above, through specialists, with museological discourses proposed and authorized by official cultural institutions, who generate museological spaces for a passive people” [Méndez 2007]. This explains why only from the 1950s onwards the structure of the “contemporary” museum began to be shaped, based on a progressive identification with the triad composed by the territory, the cultural goods and the local communities, so that these axes of action would tend to interrelate closely, as well as to the experiences, interests and values of those inhabiting the territory. In fact, it is within the framework of this museum redefinition that the principles of the New Museology were defined in Rio de Janeiro in the context of the “UNESCO Regional Seminar on the Pedagogical Role of Museums” [UNESCO 1958]. Considering Museology for the first time as a social science specialized in the study of museums, one could begin to delineate in depth the social role of the institution, taking as a starting point its pedagogical component and the multiple possibilities of knowledge exchange in an egalitarian and non-formal context. However, the foundations of the new museological current were definitively established during the 1970s, with the “Declaration of Santiago de Chile” [UNESCO, 1972], and in the 1980s with the “Declaration of Quebec” [MINOM, 1984], democratizing the museum's mission and also the access and uses of the institution.
In countries like Brazil, the movement not only found space becoming a theoretical reflection at the University, but primarily in museological practices from the year 2000 onwards. Notable in this respect is the 2003 initiative “National Policy of Museums” in Brazil, meant not only to revitalize public museums, but above all to support the creation and consolidation of community museums in broad dialogue with society.
In this context, where the institution gradually became a tool of cultural, social and political action, the museums working with national history slowly became increasingly aware of their narrative validation power. In fact, these museums have never been, nor can be, neutral in their mission and actions (such as research, communication or education): they are mechanisms for activating senses and heritage meanings in contexts of democratic living, they have the responsibility to decode the different layers of a reality so as not to leave anyone excluded from history, their institutional discourse validates histories.
If the museum has in participation the essence of its institutional logic, which is the structuring and defining basis of its heritage framing and museological dynamics, then acts of material and semantic repression, or those of willful reframing, should be discarded in the practice of democratic and democratizing museology [Sancho Querol 2013: 181].
Having a look to NHM permanent exhibition and discourse, we present three examples of Invisibilised Heritage. With this concept we refer to the process of invisibilization of heritage meanings at the museum. This keyword is related to other heritage practices like Repression, in the sense of premeditate occulting not only the systemic violence entailed in the history of these objects, but also the economic interests behind it [Kølvraa 2018], and also to an a-critical Reframing [Knudsen 2018]. The process of invisibilization avoids the possibility of including the other, the silenced, the untold and the lessons unlearned through museological action. By repressing and reframing the taboo presences and actions, the museum becomes a tool of phantom and excluding stories.
At any rate, what is quite notable at NHM, is the way museum educators and researchers are countering the inheritances of an elitist museology, by pedagogically reframing these heritages in a critical way, while waiting for a deep renovation on the museum circuit, exhibition logics and discourses.
In fact, after almost 100 years of acquiring a variety of objects through diverse directions and strategies, the mission of the NHM lies in promoting collective mobilization to increase historical awareness and the right of access to Brazilian cultural heritage, through the formation and preservation of the collection, knowledge-building and educational action.
Cultural goods related to colonial history have inhabited the museum collections since its origins in 1922, so they are frequently presented in museographic discourse through exhibitions, at educational actions etc. What happens is that, in many cases, they are not visible and comprehensible to the public in all their historical and contemporary meanings and senses, due to: a) the logics and goals defining the acquisition and collections policies along time; b) the lack and diversity of documentation during its musealisation process; c) due to a type of repressing presentation by which they are frequently subalternised, pacified or domesticated. In this way, some of the objects are victims of a museology that denies their right to tell the multiple stories they carry, thus being strategically musealized to be part of what Chimamanda Adichie (2009) calls “the single story” referring to the dangerous consequences of ignoring the diverse sides of history. Consequently, when used for developing any of the museum's functions, some of the data related to the people who made/used/ or were related to them, are not available to museum users and visitors.
As an example of what we call the Archeology of Heritage Invisibilization at the NHM, we can refer to the case of the `Abolition and Exile´ room. Existing between 1924 and 1930, this room welcomed objects belonging to the Portuguese Imperial Family - who were banished after the proclamation of the Brazilian Republic in November 1889 - so they were the main display in the room. Simultaneously, a small set of objects related to slavery, mostly instruments of torture, were “timidly” decoded, poorly exhibited and frequently missing in photographs at publications [Figure 1].
Following this path, with a glance to current permanent exhibition we can identify three forms of heritage invisibilization of objects related to African Diaspora, by presenting them:
- Subalternised: so a historical event such as the Abolition of Slavery is seen as an official process carried out by the Monarchical State. Consequently, any agency by the afro-descendants involved in the struggle for freedom, their forms of resistance and abolitionist movements are neglected in the representation [Figure 2].
- Pacified: every form of conflict between the monarchical state and the status of slavery, masters and slaves, etc., is concealed from the perspective of a factual retelling based only on laws, decrees and so on. Abolition is seen as another stage in history and not as the culmination of a complex process of struggles, resistance, negotiations, conflicts and demands for the right to freedom [Figure 3].
- Domesticated: i.e. selecting forms of invisibilising the cruelest heritage, by domesticating slavery and emptying it of all of the tensions involved in enslaved relationships. In a passage from the Book of Embraces [Galeano 2006], we see a summary of the process of building a homogeneous identity by which different social groups should feel positively represented. In this process, we can identify a form of domestication of the past: 'In the French Caribbean islands, history texts teach that Napoleon was the most admirable warrior in the West. In those islands, Napoleon re-established slavery in 1802. With blood and fire, he forced the free blacks to return to being slaves on the plantations. About this, the texts say nothing. The blacks are Napoleon's grandchildren, not his victims.'
Figure 1: Room “Abolition and Exile”. National Historical Museum in 1924 (Barroso 1924: 170). Exhibition from this period frequently avoids showing elements relating to the practices of slavery.
Figure 2: Allegory representing the “Free Womb Law”, by A. D. Bressae. The sculpture represents a boy grateful for his freedom, granted by the Viscount of Rio Branco and by D. Pedro II in the nineteenth century, honored on the plaque that the child holds. Photo: Romulus Fialdini (September 2019).
Figure 3: “Time line of Abolition”. Chronological line representing the process of Abolition from slavery in Brazil where the slave revolts or other struggles for freedom are not represented. Photo: Flavia Figueiredo (Agost 2019)
Figure 4: “People from streets”. Ten statuettes carved from a cashew tree by the artist Erotides de Araújo. The caption reads “the sculptures represent travelling venders that moved among the Brazilian cities until the 20th century.” In this case the silencing occurs in relation to the condition of the sellers - who were slaves put out to earn for their masters - and the domestication occurs through verse featured by Maria Bethania reading the following exert from Gilberto Freire's work “Casa Grande e Senzala”: “In tenderness, excessive mime, in the Catholicism where we delight our senses, in music, in walking, in speech, in lullaby small, in everything that is a sincere expression of life, we almost bring all the mark of black influence” (2003: 367). Photo: Aline Montenegro (September 2018).
On the other hand, as an example of a meanings visibilizing museology and related to the keyword Re-emergence, we can refer to the “Educative and Cultural Program” 2 of the museum, where activities like “The History Tram Project” were defined in line with the decolonial turn to counter processes of invisibilization of heritage.
The History Tram is based on mediated visits not focused on objects but on themes that challenge the historical view in which black people do not appear as social actors, so instead they have their creation and action historically denied [Figure 5]. In this context, the visitors are invited to:
“… seeing while thinking, and thinking when seeing, (so) that imaginative and creative thinking works and enables the creation of new relationships, ideas and attitudes (…). New knowledge results from the encounter of what the visitor/participant “carries” with them (knowledge, experience, memory, sensations) with what he/she finds in the museum/exhibition. This overlap results in a network of potential interrelationships. When visitor/participant knowledge intersects with what one finds in the museum, imaginative and creative thinking creates analogies, reformulation of ideas, new combinations that are more complex within a more complex field of action” (Ferreira 2014).
The Tram Project offers visits and workshops in which the public is invited to tell their story from their point of view. They are also asked to suggest themes for future visits and they are encouraged to build with the museum educators, new knowledge on black culture, by putting into action from the point of view of critical pedagogy, their historical knowledge [Figure 6].
Figure 5: The History Tram about “Historical Violence”, here related to a slave trunk. Photo: Valéria Abdalla (May 2018).
Figure 6: The educational team identifying objects of Candomblé3 donated in 1999 by Zaira Trindade, with the help of Babalorixá Tat'Etu Lengulukenu, Rogério Eliziário (in white) to increase the representation of Negros in the exhibition “Citizenship in Construction.” This work is part of the museum's role in building religious tolerance in times where terreiros and religious practitioners and their locals of worship have been suffering constant attacks. Photo: National Historical Museum team (May 2018)
Studies on the presence and absence of the African Diaspora on the exhibit circuit of the NHM have shown that, despite the time that distances the “Abolition and Exile” room from the current exhibit modules, as well as the changes the institution has undergone throughout time, the invisibility of blacks and black history within the representation of national history still remains.
However, advances in research of collections and acquisitions - along with the educational actions - aims at democratising the museum and the society by promoting knowledge transfer and sensibilization of visitors through the use of dialogical and emancipatory practices based on critical thought.
Sometimes through educational discourse, other through museographic resources, invisibilised heritage emerges and gains prominence, even when it involves an exhibit that is absent.
Faced with the policies that tend to make the colonial heritage invisible as a “difficult heritage,” internal forces of the NHM team are increasingly promoting - through the politics of incorporation, research and education - the visibility of that heritage legacy in favor of the recognition of the other subjectivities of colonial history. Thus, museology can better enter into dialogue with the present, exemplifying what Janes and Sandell call the reality-based museum [2019: 14]. That is, operatively a museum practice shaped by ethically informed values and goals, which can be useful to the current generations.
Single stories generate single thoughts, and single thoughts define impossibilities to understand the other in all their diversity of absences and relevances.
Museums are both, cultural institutions with a political role and political institutions with a cultural role so, the only way for them to become true forces for good is by assuming their social and cultural responsibility through a museology of representativeness - in opposition to mere excellence - but also through a museology based on plurality and participatory essence that faces a nourishing heritage elitism or, in other words, the historicity of invisibility in the museum.
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