My will, with the anger that we are all feeling,
is to leave that ruin as memento mori,
as memory of the dead, of the dead things,
of the dead people, of the archives, destroyed in that fire.*
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro mourns in anger. None of his colleagues died in the September 2018 fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil, where he worked as a professor. The worst physical injury it caused was to burn the hand of a fireman who was attempting to save a skull from the flames. It was the remains of a woman who died about twelve thousand years ago, one of the first immigrants to Latin America. The researchers had nicknamed her Luzia.
In one night, the Museum lost 92% of the 20 million objects it had amassed over its two centuries of existence. In an interview with a Portuguese newspaper, Viveiros de Castro recalled memories of the Museum’s archives and its world-famous Library of Anthropology, now lost as well. When asked if he would support the government’s initiative to rebuild the Museum, he refused. “I would build nothing in that place.”
Sociologist Theodor Adorno once noted how the words museum and mausoleum have similar roots in German-museal, the quality of something dying. Museums and mausoleums keep in half-life what would otherwise be long dead. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to make the distinction. We think of museums as preserving objects and artifacts, and mausoleums as preserving the remains of people we knew, but there is much cross-pollination.
As a case in point, the relatively new National Museum of Natural History in Manila proudly displays the remains of a crocodile. It’s an impressive exhibit in its own right—an immense, dinosaur-like skeleton suspended in midair. But we’ve named this crocodile, and the plaque under the exhibit is written in strangely personal terms. “After his capture, Lolong… qualified for his official certification by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest crocodile in captivity,” it proudly says. “Tragically, Lolong did not live long in captivity.”
According to historian William Scott, objects have always played a role in the way Filipinos venerate their dead. For example, bulul are wooden carvings which may represent the presence of ancestral spirits in Ifugao households, keeping a link between those alive and those who have passed on.
For the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the distinction between people and objects may be more blurred, though no less striking: in a 1996 paper, Viveiros de Castro describes the creation myths of the people of the Amazon. For them, objects and people are not different in essence, or made on separate days of creation. For them, every living and nonliving thing is really human, just wearing a different skin. Shamans, those with knowledge, could reveal the true human form of any object.
Objects, in the variety of their origins and forms, help us remember. They last longer than memories and people do. When we collect, curate, and keep them, we can stave off the death of the stories that matter to us. We get to preserve what we want to remember.
When preservation fails, we reveal what we are choosing to forget. The UP Shopping Center and the UP Faculty Center, struck by fires in March 2018 and April 2016, respectively, may be examples of this, after they plunged the UP community into grief both times.
After the Shopping Center fire, a sign was put up outside the burnt building. “Save the Shopping Center,” it said. It was a call to rebuild. Perhaps some part of the Shopping Center lived on, and the community had to save it. After all, it was a central figure to UP nostalgia—to the feeling that certain things about student life remained constant over decades. While walking the Shopping Center, eating at Rodic’s, or negotiating with shopkeepers, one could easily believe themselves to be living in some point in the past. It connected us to UP’s history not through dead objects, but through the rituals of UP life. This place took part in the memories of so many people before us that experiencing it in the present could feel like living through a memory. There was an element of timelessness to the whole building, similar in some respects to the timelessness of a museum or mausoleum—unlike either, though, the Shopping Center had been constantly unquestionably alive.
This is preservation of a different sort. The nostalgia of UP’s aging buildings, like any good museum exhibit, can transport us to the past. When these buildings are lost to fire—or to development projects—the memory of these ways of life is threatened. We wish we could reach through the flames, save anything we can from being forgotten. And there is such a fear in these moments, over how the culture these objects and places signify could turn out to be temporary, too. Is time simply marching on, leaving cherished places to be neglected? Are we the only ones who care anymore?
As historical buildings burn, we remain immersed in a culture that is outliving its material parts. The objects that represent its memory are showing their impermanence. The urge then is to build and rebuild, in order to make the things and places that make us who we are feel permanent again.
When archives and museums burn, fire takes away the last material memories of past cultures—
Brazil’s National Museum had preserved languages now considered dead; it kept wax cylinders that used some of the earliest recording technologies to save the voices and stories of 160 indigenous Amazon tribes, many of which were rendered extinct by Portuguese colonialism. The UP Faculty Center, for its part, had kept some of the few extant issues of La Solidaridad in its archives.
Those brilliant voices will never be heard again, and the cultures they spoke for and against are long gone. These losses induce anger precisely because they are preventable.
In May 2018, the administrative offices of the National Archives of the Philippines (NAP) in Binondo, Manila, was affected when a nearby building went up in flames. Largely in part to competent archival practice, microfilms and other precious documents were spared, the offices suffering only water damage. Public response was swift, almost in panic, and rightly so. As written in an official update published on their website, NAP Executive Director Victorino Mapa Manalo said, “Ang malasakit sa mga talaan ay malasakit sa Bayan.”
What de Castro felt—not fear, but anger—could be understood fundamentally as a response to needless injustice, which may be avoided by first recognizing the precarity of cultural institutions. No rebuilding, no preservation, can satisfy this anger. We seek instead memento mori, markers and reminders for what has been lost, as if to hold the rest of society responsible.
We create objects to tell our stories for when we can no longer tell them ourselves. Nothing can restore what has been lost in these fires—ours and those far away—because we have lost stories only these archives and repositories are capable of telling. The half-lives we tend, perhaps dead all along, can only exist as testaments of our cyclical remembrance and forgetting and, by way of sad metaphors, rendered as truly nothing more than smoking ruins.
*Translated from an Alexandra Prado Coelho interview of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, as published by PÚBLICO in September 2018. An English version of the interview as translated by Thiago Oppermann may be found here: https://thefamiliarstrange.com/2018/09/13/museu-nacional-brazil/