In three weeks of orientation, I’ve carried my notebook, pen and water bottle around my fair share of classrooms, lecture halls and conference rooms. I carried them around the Tufts and Stanford Campuses and the Morros Das Pedras Hotel in my tote bag, somewhat obnoxiously adorned with a print of Botticelli’s Primavera. I could derive many a poetic meaning from this; that we are approaching spring here in Florianopolis, or as some fellows have idealised that we are all experiencing a spring-like rebirth in our 9 months of self-development. However, what it makes me think of most is my time in Italy studying Renaissance art. Lucky enough to be selected, I spent a week in the paradise of Tuscany, wandering in and out of the most extraordinary museums, with the pinnacle at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A gallery of artworks and a museum of a movement, time, thought process and revolution, it truly taught me the value of holding objects in places and in ways accessible to educate all people.
Barely 24 hours in Brazil, the country I endeavour to embrace the culture of, lost a large part of it. The National Museum of Brazil caught fire on Sunday evening, the day we completed our 30 hour journey to Florianopolis, and was burnt down by the time we woke up. In the run up to an election, discussion of political blame was immediate: austerity and a lack of investment in culture, reliability of emergency services and excessive spending on the World Cup and Olympic Games. Although these conversations were inevitable and essential, my initial reaction was of sadness, and almost mourning. I had never heard of this museum beforehand, or known what it held but I deeply resonated with the photos I saw online of the residents of Rio crying in front of the carcass of the Portuguese Palace.
I was unsure of how to explain the significance of losing the physical remains of history. There is a big push on trying to digitise collections, but having done work on archaeological sites, I know first-hand the importance of being able to handle artefacts and the connection this gives to our cultural past. Unsure of how to summarise this, I will share a short piece written earlier this year on my time at the Blackden Heritage Site:
I had arrived early one day to Blackden, and was waiting in the visitor’s seating area for Tim, the resident archaeologist, to arrive and continue sorting the pottery we had begun the day before. Alan wandered in and spotted me waiting, and walked over with a medium sized plastic box in his hands. He presented me with a stone and asked me what I thought. I was slightly taken a back, having never had any experience with artefacts older than the 1200s, but decided to give it a go. It seemed to fit snugly in my hand in one particular orientation, with a rounded edge in my palm and a dent for my thumb, leaving a blunted blade at the top. No doubt it was a heavy duty tool, impossible for use in projectile hunting, so I came to the conclusion that it may have been a construction tool, most likely from the upper European Stone Age. Incorrect, I was informed. “Try again,” he said. I was struggling by this point, and started hypothesising the ritual use of the tool – in my small hands it really seemed impossible for the blade to have had a mobile use. What I had failed to consider, as Alan then told me, was that not all human had hands as small as ours, as not all humans were homo sapiens. Now realising the age and importance of the tool I had in my hands, I put it carefully back in the box as Alan explained that this tool was actually made by homo heidelbergensis in excess of 200,000 years ago.
I plan to visit Rio this year, Primavera bag left at home for my larger backpack. There, I won’t get to great Luzia, the oldest human skull found in southern America. And I won’t get to see or handle the invaluable indigenous collection that her people left behind in the National Museum. But I endeavour to learn as much as I can about Brazil now; by holding the material culture of a country as diverse as it is complex, in my own, homo sapien, artist’s hands.
Ingber, Sasha, ‘In Brazil’s National Museum Fire, officials fear ‘incalculable’ loss of artefacts’, 3rd September 2018, MPR News, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/09/03/npr-in-brazils-national-museum-fire-officials-fear-incalculable-loss-of-artifacts
Balter, Michael, ‘Mysterious link emerges between Native Americans and people half a globe away’, 21st July 2015, Science Mag,