Indigenous Language Loss After Brazil National Museum Fire

On 2nd September the world suffered an incalculably devastating loss when Brazil’s Museu Nacional, or National Museum, and the 20 million artefacts it held were damaged irreparably by a catastrophic fire. Images of the 200-year-old museum being ravaged by flames were seen all over the globe as the sheer significance of the artefacts burning inside came to light. As reported on the BBC, museum officials have estimated that 90% of its collections were lost in the fire.

Amongst the material housed in the museum and since lost were audio recordings of indigenous languages from across Brazil, many of which belonged to languages that are no longer spoken. In an interview with the National Geographic, Mariana Françozo, a Brazilian anthropologist based at Leiden University, said that the loss of this material was ‘tremendous’ and ‘heartbreaking’. Cira Gonda, identified as an employee of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in this article, shared the same perspective. Diogo Alemida translated her words into English shortly after the fire ripped through the Linguistics division based at the museum:

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic group in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes’.

You can find Alemida’s original Facebook post here.

According to Peter Kotecki, writing for Business Insider, it remains unclear whether any of the language records at the museum had been digitized prior to the fire or not. In an article on Wired, Emily Dreyfuss comments on precisely this fact and argues that the artefacts that have been lost could have been systematically backed up years prior to the fire with photographs, scans and audio files. She draws the conclusion that ‘the academic community has not yet fully embraced the importance of archiving importance of archiving—not just in Brazil, but around the world’.

Dreyfuss’ piece is perhaps the most complete and well-researched account of the tragic loss of this museum’s language archives. For her article Dreyfuss interviewed a range of linguists, including Bruna Frachetta, who had an office at the museum and shared that the Centre of Indigenous Languages at the National Museum had started a digitisation project, but that she was unsure how far they had progressed with it. In her article Dreyfuss also includes poignant comments from Andrew Nevins, a linguist affiliated to the National Museum, and Colleen Fitzgerald, a linguist who directs the United States’ National Science Foundation’s project on protecting endangered languages. To read these, please go here.

Perhaps yet more powerful are the words of indigenous leader Jose Urutau, who watched the fire from the nearby village of Maracana. He explained in an emotive interview that the losses at the museum were equivalent to the European invasion of 1500 and that it felt as though they had been murdered again for ‘murder is the death of one’s own language, one’s culture, one’s own memory’. In an upcoming blog post we will talk in more detail about the indigenous language archives that were lost in the fire, specifically those of Curt Niemuendaju.

In the midst of the trauma associated with the loss of a collection of this size and significance, volunteers have stepped in to try and find ways to digitally restore the museum’s collections. On 4th September 2018, just two days after the fire, Wikipedia tweeted asking for people who had been at the museum to upload any photos they had taken to Wikipedia Commons. The call was initiated by an individual using the username ‘Dornicke’ and saw between 2,400 and 3,000 images added to the website by 6th September according to this article. To find out more about the initiative, click here.

Though the museum has suffered irreparable losses, some of the material it housed may well be reconstructed in the future from copies and transcriptions made by researchers over the years. The painstaking work of sourcing and compiling this research will be an ambitious project, but with the willingness of the academic community, it will hopefully be possible to retrieve some of the museum’s collections, albeit in a different form.

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