Every now and then something takes your breath away and makes you rethink everything you ever thought you knew about museums. Last week I was in Rio de Janeiro visiting the Museu de Favela in one of the shanty towns in the heart of one of the wealthiest places in Brazil. Here, stacked onto the hillside, one upon each other, linked by small, uneven and difficult paths and steps, are the homes of the poor and dispossessed – one or two room shacks with little furniture and virtually nothing of material value. Ignored for long by the Brazilian government they now have electricity, water, a regular police presence and a lift that links them to the affluent area below. It is here, in the area around the lift, that you realize something extraordinary is taking place. Tourists and visitors from one world wait to be taken above to the shanty town in the sky. There they meet no hostility as they might have done a few years before but only friendly faces, and they walk through one of the most innovative museums I have ever seen. Five years ago, I was informed, this was a no go area. Drug barons ruled. Killings were rife. People lived their lives in fear. Now the worst of the drug dealing has gone. The police are a quiet and welcome presence, unobtrusively sitting on corners or walking round the Favela, protecting the hitherto vulnerable and frightened population of 20,000 people. The museum itself is all around you. Working with artists the community has chosen themes to illustrate their history and their aspirations, and the artists decorate the walls of the houses and shacks along the sides of the paths. This follows a long tradition of graffiti and outside art, and in one place we were shown an image that was now being conserved. Special lighting is provided so that at night the outside gallery can be seen to great effect. The trail of art takes you to a building in the Favela that stands out from the rest as having the modern conveniences of air conditioning and well-constructed walls. Here the curator and workers told us about their work. They are part of the community and speak for it. People here still suffer from the impact of the violence in the past. Their lives are hard and they suffer discrimination but the museum, the buildings with the images as well as the main centre itself, is what they are proud to be. One of them, describing other members of the community said. ‘How they build their houses is the way they live and who they are.’ As you walk through the shanty town on the narrow paths and up precipitous stairways (there are no roads here) people look out from their doorways and smile a greeting. Children join the little procession of visitors. The creation of the murals has helped to bring different groups in the community together and enables them to show a proud identity to the outside world, whereas before they were literally beyond the pale – outside mainstream society and often invisible. They aspire to encourage more tourism. Many tourists still only venture to the top of the lift for the view and are afraid to walk into the Favela, despite the fact that they are provided with tour guides. Old prejudices and fear take a long time to die. However, this is a museum that deserves to succeed and, in doing, it may transform our ideas about what community museums are and can do for the people they serve. Here a museum validates a way of life and helps to transform its people into proud citizens.
I was in Brazil as a guest of the British Council, as part of the Museum Development Programme, a project spanning 4 years aiming to bring museums and museology schools in Brazil and the UK closer together. There I gave a lecture and a workshop and met members of the School of Museology at the University of Rio and the Museum of Astronomy and Science, Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins (MAST). I was privileged to meet some wonderful people and together we began to discuss innovative ways to work together in the future which might include exchange of students and joint museum projects. We were all excited by the possibilities of this potential partnership. We are continuing to discuss ideas. Watch this space!
Rio de Janeiro is using museums as part of a regeneration programme of the old quayside, the place where the slaves were bought and sold. From the Museum of the Future, so advanced there is no firm idea of what will be in this institution though its foundations have been laid to the new extension of the Museu de Arte do Rio – MAR. Brazil’s museums are reaching out to new generations of museum visitors. One of the most impressive sights was the queue of people waiting patiently to be allowed into MAR. Many clutched passes, given to the local community and the workers who built the museum. MAR had only been opened a few weeks but it was clearly the star attraction of the local area. The museum itself is extraordinary. You purchase a ticket and a lift takes you to the top floor, open to the elements, where you can see a panoramic view of the harbor and the surrounding high rise residences, before a long corridor leads you down into the museum itself where modern and traditional art forms are exhibited together. Education is the core of this museum with community education spaces and links to schools, adult and child programmes, to put art at the heart of the curriculum and learning experience.
If you find yourself in Rio do visit the Museu Histórico Nacional housed in some of the oldest buildings in the city where a clever juxtaposition of objects contrasts the lives of the wealthy wih their slaves, and the indigenous peoples of the area are celebrated. Another site not to be missed is the Sugar Loaf mountain where a cable car takes to spectacular views of Rio, the mountains and the sea. When I was there we had to rush down as a spectacular thunderstorm was approaching and the cable cars stop for several hours when one of the big tropical storms hit.
Rio contains a wealth of museums and heritage sites which all create a sense of a vibrant culturally diverse city, confident of its future and looking forward to hosting the World Cup and the Olympics in the next few years. Oh, and for those of you reading this in the UK, yes, it was warm and sunny, in fact positively hot – a welcome break from this cold and miserable long winter. Yet another reason to put Rio de Janeiro on your ‘to visit’ list.
For those of you who want to find out more about my visit and can read Portuguese here are the links to two other blogs written by Claudia Porto who attended my lecture and workshop and who subsequently interviewed me about my views on museums.