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The power of museums with ethnographic collections: two cases in Brazil


“The Power of Museums” was the General Conference on the central theme of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 2022 (Prague). This article aims to discuss the ability of ethnographic collections to combat prejudice and promote freedom, cultural diversity, religious diversity, and democracy, among other aspects of human rights. Here, we propose a theoretical reflection on the power of museums, considering the context of the decolonization of ethnographic collections in Brazil. To illustrate the discussion, we briefly present two recent cases in the country that refer to the appreciation of indigenous, religious, and cultural diversity. The first is related to a photographic collection of indigenous peoples that is part of the Museu Paranaense (MUPA) collection in Curitiba (southern Brazil). The second case involves collections from a group of people who descend from enslaved people and members of Terreiros de Umbanda and Candomblé in the city of Rio de Janeiro (southeastern region), which is now preserved at the Museu da Republica. For this purpose, we present a brief context on the historical development of Brazil, its contemporary museum universe, and Associação Brasileira de Antropologia’s initiative to map ethnographic collections in Brazil. Both cases reveal experiences of decolonizing ethnographic collections with the direct involvement of the associated communities. These cases demonstrate how it is possible to deconstruct collections shaped within colonialist and prejudiced perspectives by presenting new narratives that appreciate cultures that were previously.

1 Introduction

“The Power of Museums” was the central subject of the 2022 General Conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) (Prague). In this article, we intend to examine museums’ potential to use ethnographic collections to oppose prejudice and promote freedom, cultural and religious variety, and democracy, among other aspects of human rights, in a Brazilian context.

Material culture and collections have been studied by many authors and from different perspectives. Pomian described in detail the ancient practice of collecting by humans (Pomian 1984). In the 1980s, indigenous rights activists, anthropologists, and museum studies experts problematized how Europeans and their ethnographic museums represented non-Western peoples through their material culture (Stocking 1985; Clifford 1988). Mariana Françoso, however, discusses the status and authority a collection bestows on its owner (Françoso 2014).

The multidisciplinary academic discussion that has been taking place in the West for at least three decades and which criticizes ethnographic collections, especially those established in colonial contexts, provides the framework for the theoretical analysis proposed in this paper. As Clifford wrote, museums were “contact zones” (Clifford 1997). Since the 1990s, a broad debate has developed, questioning the ethnographic collections and the forms of collections representing non-Western social groups, a process we refer to as the decolonization of collections.Footnote 1

The decolonization of ethnographic collections occurs in a broad range of settings, such as countries of Latin America (Kok 2018) and Oceania (Jolly 2016), as well as the United States (Clifford 1997) and Canada (Ames 1992). In Europe, we could mention many cases in different countries. Here, we highlight just a few of them: the Africa Museum (ancient Tervuren Museum) and the Migratie Museum (Migration Museum) in Belgium, the Wereldmuseum Amsterdam (Ancient Tropen Museum) and the Wereldmuseum Leiden in the Netherlands (The Dutch National Museum of World Cultures), the Grassi Museum Leipzig (Leipzig Museum of Ethnography) and the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum (Rautenstrauch Joest Museum: Cultures of the World) in Germany. Furthermore, there are many other cases around the world.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in addition to the term “decolonizing museums” (Lonetree 2012), other expressions began to be used to name actions on the interdisciplinary frontiers of museology and anthropology, such as the cross-cultural perspective for museums (Kreps 2003), “unpacking the collection” (Byrne et al. 2011) and “reassembling the collection” (Harrison 2013).

Numerous debates have erupted in response to the criticism and conceptual-theoretical review of Anthropology and Ethnology museums. They occurred in places such as Canada (Ames 1992) and the USA (Clifford 1997) with cases of curatorships from the dialogue with indigenous peoples in the late 1990s, the Netherlands (the case of the workshops held in 2013 at the Dutch Institute for Advanced Studies with the Ka’apor and Kayapó indigenous peoples, reported in a dossier organized by Françozo and Broekhoven (Françozo and Broekhoven 2017), Austria (the case of shared curatorship with Amerindian peoples at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna described by Augustat and Kapfhammer) (Augustat and Kapfhammer 2017), France (such as the exhibition Sur la Route des Chefferies du Cameroun at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, commented by Reilly (Reilly 2022).

Since the end of the last century, many cases of collaborative actions between museums and indigenous peoples have taken place in Brazil. The phenomenon of these experiences in the late 1990s occurred in Brazil at a time of the country’s re-democratization after the military dictatorship (1964–1985) and in the context of the new Federal Constitution (Brazil 1988) and the mobilization of social groups such as black people and indigenous people. The indigenous peoples created their own associations to demand their rights to land, indigenous education, and respect for their languages and traditions.

We can also mention contemporary collaborative experiences, on display in 2023, involving dozens of aboriginal peoples in the province of Québec (Canada) as in the exhibitions Indigenous Voices of Today (Mccord Stewart Museum, Montreal) and This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuits in the 21st Century (Musée de la Civilization, Québec City) or the self-narrative exhibition of the Musqueam people in collaboration with the MOA (Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia) on display at the Musqueam Cultural Center (Vancouver). Such initiatives show new narrative forms emerging from ethnographic collections that were formed years ago, which are being reformulated and expanded while taking the non-Western peoples’ perspective into consideration. Like in Brazil, these initiatives do not erase the colonial heritage that deeply marked these peoples but bring a critical perspective on this past.Footnote 2

Although there is substantial disagreement about the variety of approaches to these issues, ethics in conducting experiments and respect for non-Western peoples would need to be a consensus. Thus, we found many ways to decolonize collections, or better, following the ideas of Soares (ICOM 2023), anticolonial ways of dealing with collections that necessarily need to promote an exercise in reflexivity.

ICOM has also promoted reflections on decolonization in museums. In a recent seminar entitled Museums, Decolonization and Restitution, A Global Conversation, Bruno Brulon Soares (ICOM 2023) pointed out, in the suggestive presentation Decolonizing the museum paradigm: Unpacking museum theory for anticolonial practices, that many European museums still maintain a colonial way of acquiring, preserving, and displaying, despite them talking about decolonization. To combat the idea that persists with the distinction of “us” and “them” that divides, subjugates, and dehumanizes, Brulon proposed an anticolonial practice based on a three-sided and interrelated process that encompasses deconstructing, reconstructing, and redistributing.

Deep social inequalities have historically marked Brazil. Although Brazil is ranked among the most significant economies in the world in 2022—13th in the world ranking (G1-Economia 2022), today, problems such as hunger, unemployment, and inequalities, aggravated by the pandemic, add to the threats to Brazilian democracy.

We still have problems recognizing the existence of structural prejudice against indigenous minorities, LGBTQI + communities, and, above all, black people, who make up more than half of the population.

Based on data from the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) 2023) and current estimates, the Brazilian population totals more than 215 million. The population that declares itself to be black (black or brown people) is 56.1%, higher than the population that declares itself to be white (43%) (G1-Jornal Nacional 2022). In 2010, indigenous peoples numbered around 896,000 people, less than 1% of the Brazilian population (Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas (FUNAI) 2022).

Brazil was a colony of Portugal from the 16th to the 19th century, which meant more than three hundred years under Portuguese rule. It was also during the colonial period that Brazil was the destination of the worst and most numerous flows of people who were savagely abused (Ribeiro 1995).

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database survey, over three centuries, of the more than 11,400 trips to transport enslaved people, 9,200 of them were destined for Brazil. No country has received as many people who were enslaved as Brazil. It is estimated that almost five million Africans were brought here.

The abolition only happened in 1888, but the marks in Brazilian history remain today.

According to Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas—FUNAI (the government agency that takes care of indigenous issues), in the 16th century, approximately 3,000,000 indigenous people lived in Brazil, divided among 1,000 different peoples. Approximately 2,000,000 were established on the coast of the country.

When the Portuguese occupied Brazil, they first began with the process of enslaving the indigenous people and then continued with the catechization and persecution of them. In those days, millions of indigenous people and groups were exterminated. Currently, more than 800,000 indigenous settlements are spread among 300 ethnic groups.

For a long time, the histories of blacks and indigenous people in Brazil were erased. The forgetting of their knowledge and memories, the persecution of their cultural and religious practices, and prejudice and racism persist in our country. However, some advances have happened since 1988 with the enactment of the Federal Constitution, which went into force one hundred years after the official end of slavery (Brasil 1988).

For 14 years in Brazil, we have had legislation requiring all schools to teach the history and culture of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples.Footnote 3 The museum’s challenges remain, still enormous. However, we have adhered to good practices that have been advancing and consolidating themselves in civic engagement in citizenship actions and respect for diversity. One of the main challenges for museums is to move away from Eurocentric values, which have shaped how our past has been understood and studied for centuries.

Considering this context, the question that sheds light on the development of this article is the following: In a country like Brazil, with approximately 4,000 museums and enormous social inequalities, what would be “the power of museums”? Far from answering this question, we choose two recent cases related to polyphony, empowerment, and protagonism in this essay.

For at least five years, the author of this article has been researching collaborative Museology with indigenous peoples and ethnographic museums concerning indigenous collections in Brazil (Russi 2022). This article was developed based on two cases in Brazil, highlighting different strategies for decolonizing collections and “the power of museums” as a locus of visibility and appreciation of social groups and religious practices that suffer prejudice in the country. Case 1 deals with an experience with indigenous people in the southern part of the country, in the state of Paraná, and case 2 is about a collection associated with different Candomblé and Umbanda houses in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

1.1 Analytical framework: decolonization of collections and museums in Brazil

For more than two decades, research in Brazil has focused on the decolonization of museum collections. In the introduction to the Indigenous Heritage and Ethnographic Collections Dossier, Françozo and Broekhoven address the difficulties and limits of this type of initiative but also highlight the advances of collaborative Museology in Brazil (Françozo and Broekhoven 2017).

The national legislation for Brazilian museums was created simultaneously as the legislation that obliges us to teach the history and culture of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people.

The PNM was inspired by the principles of Social Museology (Duarte 2013) and recognizes the cultural right and the importance of valuing the memories of all social groups that make up Brazilian society (Brasil 2007) and has among its objectives: […] promote the appreciation, preservation, and enjoyment of the Brazilian cultural heritage, considered as one of the devices for social inclusion and citizenship […].

The excerpts above, taken from the foundation document for the formulation of Brazil’s National Museum Policy, recognize the power of museums by identifying these institutions as places that contribute to cultural democratization and defense and appreciation of cultural diversity.

From depository institutions and conservators of objects, museums turned their attention to the public and the practice of participatory museology (Varine 2013).

Today, there are 3,887 museums in Brazil (Instituto Brasileiro de Museus (IBRAM) 2023). More than 450 institutions are museums of anthropology and ethnography, which have “collections related to different ethnic groups, aimed at the anthropological and social study of different cultures.” Fx.: folkloric collections, popular arts and traditions, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian collections, people from Northeastern Brazil, etc. (Instituto Brasileiro de Museus (IBRAM) 2011). However, the majority of the ethnographic collections in Brazil are preserved by historical museums, which constitute the majority of museums in the country (Russi et al. 2022). In Brazil, unlike other places, terms like “ethnic museum” or “world museum” are not commonly used.

The National Sectorial Plan for Museums for the decade 2010–2020 (Brasil 2010), linked to the PNM, establishes guidelines for ethnographic museums. Among them, the development of participatory management processes and the methodologies and cooperation between museums and heritage stakeholders are determined. They establish horizontal communication processes, exchanges of knowledge, and the development of cooperative experimental projects. The plan points to the importance of studies focused on the field of ethnomuseology.

PNM understands museums as places of social practice and has long ceased to be understood as just a place where “relics of a certain past are kept” because museums are perceived as essential territories of symbolic representation.

In Brazil, for example, the narratives of indigenous ethnographic objects presented in museum exhibitions have ceased representing people from the past or extinct peoples. PNM establishes that the museum institution should consult, dialogue, and negotiate with the community of the collection’s origin or the communities associated with these collections. Thus, museums have become more than just places to exhibit objects and cultural manifestations. They have been increasingly recognized as places of memory, active dialogue between past and present, curators, and visitors.

In this sense, Glória Kok emphasizes the ethical obligation of these institutions. The museums are no longer depositories of ethnographic objects and have an obligation to receive indigenous groups (Kok 2018).

The museums in Brazil count almost 4 thousand institutions,Footnote 4 spread throughout the national territory, but with a large concentration on the coast and in historically occupied cities dating back to colonial times.

The mapping of ethnographic collections in Brazil, initiated by the Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (ABA) in 2018, reveals that many institutions are unaware of or have no contact with the communities associated with their collections. Yet, there is still no systematized and available information on collections with artifacts from religious communities of Afro-Brazilian origin. This deficiency partly stems from the fact that many institutions classify such collections in a general “popular culture” category, making it difficult to locate or characterize them.

Nowadays, we know a bit more about the collections that refer, for example, to indigenous peoples in the country. In more than 457 museums with ethnographic collections, we have already identified more than 90 indigenous collections (Russi et al. 2022).

Despite our context, we have numerous cases of decolonization of collections that reveal processes of transformation of museums and new practices that, when problematizing these collections, deal with issues such as inequalities, land rights, and prejudice.

Since 1990, we have seen a movement of indigenous museums with autochthonous narratives (Bessa Freire 2009; Gomes 2019), and for more than a decade, we have seen a powerful movement of contemporary indigenous art emerge in the country, which has occupied spaces dedicated to the arts such as Biennials, galleries, and art museums (Esbell 2016; Rocha 2021; Frade and Guimarães 2021).

In Brazil, we have many researchers who study the potentialities, ambivalence, and multiple meanings of museum collections and the processes through which ethnographic collections become of interest to indigenous peoples, blacks, and other groups (Grupioni 2008; Cury 2016abc; Françozo and Broekhoven 2017; Athias 2019a).

Berta Ribeiro had already been involved in this debate in the 1980s, referring to the importance of studying ethnographic collections beyond the collections themselves (Ribeiro 1978). Ribeiro’s work and that of contemporary researchers and artists indicate that decolonizing collections must go beyond simply making them accessible to the public and problematizing them.

The oldest indigenous collections kept in museums in Brazil are at the Museu Paraense Emlio Goeldi, in the city of Belém, in the state of Pará, in the north of the country. Although very old, they are well preserved in the Curt Nimuendaju Technical Reserve. Some artifacts are from the end of the nineteenth century (between 1896 and 1897) and were collected among the Juruna and Tapayúna peoples (Dorta 1992). In this critical and emblematic collection, the artifacts that make up the Frei Gil de Vila Nova collection, collected among the Kayapó, date back to 1902. These collections constitute an immeasurable heritage and are of great importance for studies on indigenous peoples’ history, sociology, and material culture.

Another vital institution linked to the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro is the Museu Nacional in the city of Rio de Janeiro, which suffered a major fire in 2018 and which, for some years, has been building a new indigenous collection based on joint work with indigenous peoples (Nações Unidas Brasil (ONU Brasil) 2021).

However, we know that significant indigenous collections of original Brazilian inhabitants are preserved in museums in Europe and the United States, among many other places. Initiatives such as decolonizing and repatriating these collections are crucial to the rediscovery and strengthening of identity and culture.

2 Methodology

We used a brief review of contemporary literature in Portuguese and English for the interdisciplinary discussion proposed in this article regarding “The Power of Museums” in Brazil in combating prejudice and valuing cultural and religious diversity. We highlighted aspects of the academic debate, especially the one that deals with the decolonization of collections and collaborative Museology in Brazil.

Criticisms and reflections of Brazilian researchers on the issue of museums with ethnographic collections and indigenous peoples were fundamental to guide this article (Abreu 2007; Athias 2015, 2019b; Athias and Gomes 2016; Cury 2013, 2016a, b, c, 2017; Lima Filho and Athias 2016; Ribeiro 1994; Velthem 2012).

We analyze material sources available on the Internet, such as reports and blogs, in the cases briefly described. For case 1 on the decolonization of a collection with the active participation of indigenous peoples, we used the Retomada da Imagem as the primary source.Footnote 5 This video, which lasts 25 min, was presented during the 33rd. Brazilian Meeting of AnthropologyFootnote 6 that took place (online) in Brazil between August 28 and September 3, 2022. The video presents an experience from the Museu Paranaense with indigenous peoples and with the participation of two contemporary indigenous artists — Denílson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco — in the review and investigation of the photographic collection of this institution.

Case 2, which addresses a collection of peoples of Afro-Brazilian religion, used interviewsFootnote 7 and materials collected on the Internet as primary data sources. The interviews were conducted with a professional from the Museu da Repblica, a representative of the “povo do santo” movement, and a Liberte Nosso Sagrado movement participant.

3 Results and discussion

3.1 Case 1: The project “The resumption of the image”: Indigenous collections of the Museu Paranaense (MUPA)

In the case of indigenous peoples in Brazil, many groups are participating as collaborators and partners with museums. Such groups also visit museum collections and archival materials available for various purposes.

The Brazilian context is full of good practices in decolonizing collections and collaborative Museology with indigenous peoples. We will quote two examples before commenting on Case 1.

In the Northeast region, the Brazilian anthropologist Renato Athias carried out vital work to make the ethnographic collection Carlos Estevão de OliveiraFootnote 8 available digitally. This work, classified as “virtual repatriation” by Athias himself (Athias 2019a), made the collection of ethnographic and photographic collections accessible, and it is preserved in the Museu do Estado de Pernambuco, located in Recife. Indigenous participation in this process was fundamental. Another example has been carried out for over a decade by the Brazilian museologist Marilia Xavier Cury, who develops significant articulation work between museum collections and indigenous peoples in the Western region, such as Guaran, Krenak, and Kaingang. We highlight her work at the Museu Histórico e Pedagógico ndia Vanuire and the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia of the Universidade de São Paulo (Russi 2022).

We observed new uses, settings, and meanings for the collections in different cases. To illustrate this, we can list some aspects of these collaborations between museums, ethnographic collections, and indigenous peoples, such as struggles for rights and political autonomy, cultural enhancement and revitalization, memory, economy, territorial struggles, construction, and affirmation of identities, etc (Russi and Abreu 2019; Russi 2022).

In the case of the project “The Resumption of the Image” (free translation), dramatic narratives emerged from the collection of photographs from the Museu Paranaense (MUPA).Footnote 9

The MUPA emerged in 1876 in the city of Curitiba as a private museum to preserve agricultural and industrial products. Shortly after, it became a museum of Paraná’s government. Currently located in a historic palace, its collection focuses on anthropology, archeology, and history. The Vladimir Kozák collection, which, due to its importance, is part of the UNESCO Memory of the World program, can be highlighted.

In 2021, MUPA implemented its plan to rethink the long-term exhibition called Indígenas do Paraná, through actions involving indigenous peoples of the Kaingang, Xetá, and Guarani ethnic groups. Therefore, the museum held a series of online meetings involving indigenous people and researchers under the title “Shared curatorship in focus: experienced museums.” This series of meetings enabled an exchange of experiences with other Brazilian institutions that carried out shared curatorship actions with indigenous peoples, such as the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR-RJ), the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da UFPR/PR (MAE-UFPR/ PR), and the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da UFSC (MARquE/SC). About this experience, the MUPA director Gabriela Bettega declared: “In addition to placing indigenous people in the central role concerning the choice of what they want to inform the visitor about their conceptions of the world and ways of life, this action reinforces the concept of the museum as a place of listening and intercultural dialogue.” (Museu Paranaense (MUPA) 2021).

The project Retomada da imagem—investigações indígenas no acervo fotográfico do MUPA or in English The resumption of the image—Indigenous investigations in the photographic collection of the MUPA started from Kozák’s photographs. Two contemporary indigenous artists, Denílson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco, were invited. It took place in 2021 at MUPA and brought colonial wounds, the issue of land, and indigenous resistance to light.

During a few months in 2021, the MUPA team met virtually with Denílson and Gustavo to develop the project schedule together. After this phase, the two indigenous artists visited the museum to see, investigate, and choose the photographs. No photographs of the Baniwa people (Denilson Baniwa) or the Wapichana people (Gustavo Caboco) existed. They, therefore, suggested that indigenous peoples of some ethnic groups in the photographs in the Kozák collection, such as Kaingang, Xetá, and the Mbyá-Guarani, should participate in the project. Denílson and Gustavo invited some indigenous representatives from these ethnic groups living in south Brazil. The Indigenous guests were: Camila dos Santos (Kaingang), Indiamara Paraná (Xetá), Juliana Kerexu (Mbyá-Guarani) Ricardo Werá (Mbyá-Guarani), and Elida Yry (Mbyá-Guarani).

The result was impactful both for indigenous artists and participants, as well as for museum professionals and the public. The project allowed discussion of sensitive and urgent topics related to indigenous rights, such as representation, memories, and heritage.

The project lasted a few months, from the first contact between the museum team and the indigenous guest artists until the exhibition opened. Other indigenous guests visited the museum and its storage facilities and participated in face-to-face meetings to analyze photographs related to their people in MUPA.

One of the strategies was to work with the captions of the photographs to re-elaborate them, raising questions and problematizing the prejudiced view of the time in which they were taken.

Many photographs were “forgotten” in the collection.

“[...] This work of starting to caption these photos, these memories that are forgotten in the drawers [...]. The narrative by Lucilene Wapichana (mother of Gustavo Caboco) recorded during the exhibition closing refers to how the project began, showing anger and much emotion at the same time.”

Below is an example of the strategy for recreating subtitles, problematizing the devaluation and prejudice suffered by indigenous peoples in the southern region of Brazil (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Datasheet (Source: Project’s Retomada da Imagem reference video (0′28″))

Free translation:

Curitiba, November 14, two thousand and twenty-one

4th day of arrival

Resumption of the Image


Look at the photo and catch the phrase that it screams: Help! Who looks will see? Or who looks will never recognize?

Between records and clicks, we found a photo that screamed:

escaping massacre

pandemic disaster

What photos keep the escapes through the gaps in the lenses?

Over four months, the indigenous artists Denílson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco, along with the museum team, developed the project concept. The artists shared the photographs in the collection with other invited indigenous people to create joint representations of the museum’s collection. At that meeting, which lasted four days, many indigenous people in the images were identified as members of the same community and even the same family as those present (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Opening exhibition at MUPA (Source: Kraw Penas / SECC (MUPA Database 2021))

In Brazil, until recently, it was commonly believed that no more indigenous people lived in the southern region. However, different initiatives at universities, museums, and indigenous associations have shown that they are alive and know their rights to land, culture, and differentiated education (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Exhibition view (Source: Mariana Alves (MUPA Database 2021))

This case provoked different feelings among the participants: anger, sadness, and distress among the indigenous people, but when they were able to write new narratives about the photographs, they also had the opportunity to be protagonists. At the same time, this project showed the “power of the museum” to combat prejudice by allowing indigenous people to speak out and say what they thought and felt about photographs.

3.2 Case 2: Shared management of collections —Nosso Sagrado (Our Sacred) Collection and the Museu da República

The Nosso Sagrado collection, firstly called Museu da Magia Negra (Museum Collection of Black Magic), was transferred two years ago from the Museu da Polícia Civil of Rio de Janeiro to the Museu da República in the same municipality. This case is emblematic in that this collection consists of more than 519 pieces, which initially belonged to Candomblé and Umbanda terreirosFootnote 10 in different locations in the state of Rio, meaning that they came from multiple realities.

In their original contexts, these pieces were artifacts for rituals, objects and offerings, instruments, and “beings” of different matrices and religious traditions of the “povo de santo.” It so happens that between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, such pieces were seized in police raids at a time when such religious practices were considered a crime. These objects were forgotten in the storage facilities for more than a decade.

The objects seized from these violent invasions by the state were deposited at the Museu da Polcia Civil do Rio de Janeiro, which consists, together with other materials seized by the police forces, of exhibitions organized at the institution. In 1999, when the headquarters of this museum was transferred to the historic building at Rua da Relação, nº 40, in the center of Rio de Janeiro, all objects from the “Museum Collection of Black Magic” were stored in boxes and remained so until September 2020, with vetoed or very restricted access for researchers and members of traditional terreiro communities (Revista Museu — cultura levada a sério 2021) (Fig. 4 ).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Image of the collection of the so-called Black Magic Museum at the Civil Police Museum (Source: IPHAN-RJ)

Since the 1960s, the “povo de santo” knew about the existence of this collection and tried to “free” it from police possession. In 2014, religious leaders, students, researchers, and others began to organize themselves and formed the Liberte Nosso Sagrado movement; one of its objectives was to transfer this collection to a civil museum institution. The campaign received financial support and visibility through institutions such as Ibirapitanga and Quipocró Filmes with the documentary Nosso Sagrado (Quiprocó 2017). There were many negotiations. The Brazilian press also contributed to putting pressure on public institutions to make this transfer possible.

On September 21, 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the collection was finally transferred to the Museu da República.

The Museu da República is housed in the Palácio Nova Friburgo (current Palácio do Catete), in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where the seat of the Brazilian government operated between 1896 and 1960 and has the purpose of promoting the memory of the republican regime in Brazil. Of historical nature, its collection consists of a historical archive, a library, sculptures, images, paintings, and personal collections of the presidents of the republic, among others. Since 2017, it has been under the direction of the poet, philosopher, and museologist Mario Chagas, who is responsible for implementing a perspective of Social Museology and essential changes in the institution. For example, the museum served as a vaccination post during the pandemic (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Religious leaders enter the Muse da República, which will preserve a collection of pieces from Afro-Brazilian religions (Source: Elisângela Leite/ Quiprocó Filmes (Revista Museu Database))

The joint action that enabled the transfer of the collection to the Museu da República resulted from an action network that encompassed the community of saints, professionals from museums, and anthropology, among others, as well as the participation of Mario Chagas and the Public Ministry.

The trajectory of this collection refers to a sad history of intolerance and criminalization of Afro-Brazilian religious practices in Brazil that lasted from 1890 to 1942. Those objects were collected by the police as crime evidence. Part of this collection (126 pieces) was listed in 1938 by the Serviço do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (SPHAN) as the first ethnographic collection listed and inscribed in the Archaeological, Ethnographic and Landscape Book (Corrêa 2005).

This collection was “imprisoned” in those boxes for almost a century. According to Versiani (2021), “The freedom from police custody was demanded by the povo de santo.”

The community of saints has always fought for the removal of these pieces from police control, understanding that religions of African origin suffered persecution from established official power based on racist logic and laws, as well as religious intolerance. Over the years, many religious spaces in Rio de Janeiro have suffered violations and were closed or destroyed (Versiani 2021) (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Religious leaders of the people of Santo, in a symbolic moment in 2020, in the storage facilities of the Museu da República at the time of the transfer of the Nosso Sagrado collection (Source: Ministério Público)

Now, the collection is managed jointly by the Museu da República and 12 different Candomblé and Umbanda terreiros. A process was also opened by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, at the request of these communities, to officially change the name of the collection, which has been called Nosso Sagrado for some years now.

Within this new perspective, the collection is now “free”. It can be known, studied, and properly preserved. This collection is in shared custody; the museum and the communities work together. Recognition of the importance of this collection for a group of religious communities makes these collectives actively participate in decisions regarding the collection.

Another story has been told about this collection. Once again, “The Power of Museums” has managed to combat prejudice by bringing to light and public knowledge such a diverse and still little-known collection.

4 Conclusion

This article addresses the power of museums in the decolonization of collections processes and collaborative Museology in Brazil. It has included a literature review and comments on two cases in the Brazilian context where good practices have been implemented.

Moving toward the end of this article, we return to museum objects and other types of historical documents, photos, and audio-visual records. We know that they can and have been appropriated by different social groups, including indigenous and black peoples in Brazil, as a means of cultural and political (re)affirmation and as sources of political action in interactions with the broader society (López Garcés and Santos Karipuna 2021; Velthem and Benchimol 2018). Not only the objects themselves but also the format in which they occur can be used and mobilized for such interactions.

Case 1 illustrates a vital experience of decolonization of a photographic collection in which indigenous protagonism was essential. The participation of indigenous peoples in the MUPA project—whether as mediators such as indigenous artists Denílson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco or as representatives of the ethnic groups involved (Kaingang, Xetá, Mbyá-Guarani)—provoked changes in the identification of photographs, but above all, established a new narrative for the exhibition that incorporates an indigenous perspective.

Case 2, in turn, exemplifies the importance of collaborative Museology for collection management that was (and still is) highly disputed by different groups. The identification of the artifacts from the Nosso Sagrado collection, their proper conservation, and the ways of exposing (or not exposing) the objects result from meetings and negotiations with representatives of the Museu da República with representatives of the 12 Candomblé and UmbandaFootnote 11 terreiros in the shared management of the collection. In 2023, IPHAN finally formalized the change of nomenclature from “Black Magic Museum” to “Our Sacred Collection.”

Ethnographic collections have long been perceived as part of contemporary issues and concerns. Therefore, instead of limiting themselves to the past of people, following the paradigm of “anthropology of salvation,” the problems, challenges, and proposals that are outlined today around these collections reinforce the thesis that it is necessary to build a symmetrical dialogue between researchers and the communities from which these collections came or who feel associated with these collections.

And above all, there is still hope. Despite all the issues in Brazil, museums have the power to contribute by giving visibility to narratives and stories erased or historically disregarded in the formation of society.

Availability of data and materials

The data used and analyzed in the study are available from the author on reasonable request.


  1. Ballestrini (2013, p. 90) states that the multiple and diverse “decolonial turn” is related to “identifying and overcoming the coloniality of power, knowledge, and being” and that it has been a complex and challenging problem. The decolonial debate was the focus of attention of the Modernidade / Colonialidade group. Authors such as Aníbal Quijuano (2010) and Walter Mignolo (2017) are some of its exponents.

  2. Another aspect of museums, ethnographic collections, and the people associated with them concerns repatriation. For example, the British Museum was asked to return objects to Australia, Chile, India, Italy, and Ethiopia (Martyn 2021). A few years ago, an interesting case occurred in Norway where a kind of “drum” was returned to the Saámi people.

  3. Law number 11,645 of March 2008 makes the study of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian history and culture mandatory in primary and secondary education establishments but does not provide for its obligation in higher education establishments for teacher training courses.

  4. Updated information about the museum universe in Brazil can be found on:↑. Accessed 14 March 2024.

  5. Video Retomada da imagem. 33ª RBA Database:↑. Accessed 13 February 2023.

  6. Information about the Project Retomada da Imagem – investigações indígenas no acervo fotográfico do MUPA. 33ª. RBA Database:↑. Accessed 13 February 2023.

  7. Some contents of these interviews, carried out in 2022, are available on Instagram @colecoesetnograficasbr available at The Project Mapping ethnographic collections in Brazil is an activity of Comitê de Patrimônios e Museus of Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (ABA).

  8. The ethnographic collection Carlos Estevão de Oliveira has 2.250 objects related to 59 indigenous peoples. The virtual version is available at Universidade Federal de Pernambuco Database:↑. Accessed 13 February 2023.

  9. Data from the project The resumption of the image available at Museu Paranaense database:↑. Accessed 12 February 2023.

  10. Candomblé and Umbanda are Afro-Brazilian religions practiced in Brazil but differ from each other with regard to their rituals and worldviews. Candomblé or Umbanda terreiros — as their religious spaces are known — are places where ceremonies and rituals to present the sacred, preserve ancestral memories, among others, take place (Calvo 2019).

  11. Liberte Nosso Sagrado movement uses social media to mobilize society and publicize its demands and achievements. Liberte Nosso Sagrado Facebook page:↑. Accessed 13 February 2023.



Associação Brasileira de Antropologia


Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas


Instituto Brasileiro de Museus


International Council of Museums


Museu Paranaense


Política Nacional de Museus


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I would like to express my gratitude to colleagues from the Mapping project of ethnographic collections in Brazil and to the members of the Heritage and Museums Committee of the Brazilian Anthropology Association.


This paper is a continuation of the reflections on the result of the post-doctoral project On the borders of museums: museological processes shared with indigenous peoples in anthropology and ethnology museums in Brazil.

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Adriana Russi completes the writing of the article. The author read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Adriana Russi.

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This article was previously presented during the Annual Meeting of the International Committee for Museums of Ethnography (ICME), an international committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM- UNESCO) on November 22nd–23rd, 2022.

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Russi, A. The power of museums with ethnographic collections: two cases in Brazil. Int. j. anthropol. ethnol. 8, 5 (2024).

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