June 29, 2011

Might at the Museum: Indigenous groups revisit their heritage at the Goeldi Museum

Visitors idling on a hot Saturday afternoon through the shady grounds of the Goeldi Museum’s Zoobotanical Park in downtown Belém, Brazil, gawked and snapped photos of the unanticipated spectacle:  more than thirty Kayapó Indians in full ceremonial regalia had just entered through the front gate. I walked alongside Mro-ô, leader of the Kayapó village of Turedjam in southern Pará state. I had invited Mro-ô and his people to participate in the inauguration of a new exhibit[1] celebrating the Goeldi Museum’s 145 years at the forefront of research into the cultural diversity and human history of the Amazon basin. The exhibit, running from June through September, includes ethnographic artifacts collected among the Kayapó by different researchers from the early 1900s through the present.

A Kayapó family poses in the Goeldi's Zoobotanical Park beside a life-size photograph of a Kayapó who visited the museum in 1903

Ethnographic collections have typically been regarded as “graveyards of objects”[2] belonging to cultures that are already extinct or in a process of extinction. However in recent decades, indigenous peoples of the Amazon have conquered new forms of political engagement and developed unique interfaces with modernity. Such changes demand a new approach to museum science and ethnographic collections. The Goeldi Museum has pioneered a kind of museum science that puts indigenous peoples into dialog with their own cultural heritage, an approach we call “ethnomuseology.” According to Lucia van Velthem, curator of the Goeldi collections for many years, “ethnographic objects possess a relationship of continuity with their cultures of origin.”[3]

Kayapó villagers from Turedjam visit the new exhibit at the Goeldi Museum

The visit of the Kayapó to the museum in late June represents the culmination of an ongoing research project that is built around this philosophy.