Why you should care
Brazil’s past lives on in these smaller but still compelling museums.
Brazil is a country steeped in rich culture and history dating back more than 10,000 years. The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, also the former home of the Portuguese royal family, was reduced to a blackened shell on Sept. 2 in a devastating fire. The museum, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in June this year, was the oldest scientific institute in the country and housed around 20 million historical artifacts relating to the history of Brazil and the world. An estimated 90 percent of the items were destroyed — a loss that sent ripples of grief throughout the country and around the world.
While the National Museum is irreplaceable, there are some alternative museums in Rio to soak up Brazil’s deep, vibrant and compelling history.
Institute of Research and New Black Memory
Few have heard of the Institute of Research and New Black Memory in the Port Region. Yet this is no ordinary space. Located in Gamboa, a neighborhood steeped in Afro-Brazilian history, this tiny museum is centered around the final resting ground of between 20,000 and 30,000 slaves: the largest slave cemetery in the Americas. Ana Maria Guimarães dos Anjos, who owns and runs the museum from her home, discovered the site in 1996 during a refurbishment and turned it into a memorial. “The people who died here need a voice,” she says. “We need to tell others what happened in the past. If we don’t, we forget and history repeats itself.”
The most compelling feature is a glass-covered pit where a broken skeleton breaks through the rust-colored earth. It’s surrounded by other bone fragments and bits of rubbish, pottery and chicken bones (these were often thrown in with the bodies). Other exhibits guide visitors through the history of slavery in Brazil and showcase a photo series that celebrates the diversity of Afro-Brazilians.
- Location: R. Pedro Ernesto, 32-34, Gambôa, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 20220-350. Map.
- Open: Tuesday–Friday, 1 p.m.–7 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
- Entrance: Free (donations are welcome)
The National History Museum
The National History Museum in downtown Rio sits inside a large colonial complex dating back to 1603. Once a storehouse of weapons and ammunition, it has, since 1922, been dedicated to celebrating the history of Brazil. Spread out over several rooms that trace the earliest known humans in Brazil to the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers and the country’s eventual independence, the space houses more than 258,000 historical relics. Visitors can see indigenous jewelry and poisoned arrows, a replica of a colonial pharmacy complete with herbal medicines, an exhibition of Brazilian political propaganda throughout the years and a colossal oil painting depicting the Paraguay-Brazil war in 1864.
- Location: Praça Mal. Âncora, s/n, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 20021-200. Map.
- Open: Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
- Entrance: Sundays are free; other days: R$10 ($2.46). Reduced rates for people less than 21 years old and over 60, plus those with disabilities. Free for children under the age of 2, students and teachers at public schools.
The Museum of the Republic
The Catete Palace, which became the seat of the new government when Brazil was declared a republic in 1889, is the home of The Museum of the Republic. “The museum has lived through two really important moments in Brazil,” says Andre Andion Angulo, the museologist at the Museum of the Republic. “First, the country’s transformation to a republic and secondly, when Brazil’s capital city moved from Rio to Brasilia in 1960.” The palace was then transformed into a museum devoted to the republic years of Brazil. Detailed watercolors from the 19th century decorate the walls, and the rooms maintain their late 1900s grandeur with polished wooden floors, intricate carvings and crystal chandeliers. The palace is also the location where former president Getulio Vargas committed suicide in 1954. The gun he used is displayed in the room where he shot himself, along with his well-preserved pajamas.
- Location: Rua do Catete 153, Catete, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 22220-000. Map.
- Open: Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
- Entrance: R$6 ($1.44; free on Wednesday and Sunday). Free for teachers, people over 60 and children under 10. Students and people under 21 pay R$3 ($0.72)