The Racialized Rhetoric of Brazilian Museum Exhibitions at Midcentury and Contemporary Developments in Critical Pedagogy

Posted by Pilar Garrett, Joint MA Candidate at CLACS / Museums Studies, NYU

After three weeks in Brazil, to say my mind is over-saturated would be an understatement. This place, its social configurations, infrastructure, and patterns of behavior, are not simple- or, as Tom Jobim once noted, Brazil is not for beginners.

But I’ve known this my entire life; the degree of complexity is not news to me. However, armed with a deeper investigative purpose this time around, and a perspective made all the more sharp by the past year of critical academic reflection, Brazil’s peculiarities and blatant inequalities have presented themselves loudly and with more clarity. Such is the advantage of the field. Such is the curse and blessing of a social science education, the irremovable and ever-present analytical lens. Exhausting and oft-times emotional, I nevertheless know that these far-from-censored glances will  provide the foundation for sensitive, representative, and engaged work- and for that I am very grateful.

By way of explanation, I am here trying to sort out the racial implications of Brazil’s modernist project, specifically as represented and standardized through midcentury museum exhibitions. To this end, my work combines Brazilian social and political history, race theory, and museum theory, and while I’ve long had the conceptual framework of my thesis ready, it took being here in the field to narrow down the specific spaces of analysis for my project. My first week, following my landing in São Paulo, therefore consisted of peddling myself and my research proposal from one leading Paulista museum to another, as well as the Museu Afro Brasil which unfortunately- and tellingly- has been relegated to the lesser known of São Paulo’s cultural institutions. Of course, I had selected the museums that I felt fit my project beforehand so these rounds behaved mainly as a means to introduce myself, schedule appointments, and solidify connections in person.

Following these preliminary meetings, I was able to focus my research on a comparative historicization of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateubriand (MASP), and the Museu Afro Brasil. Through my project and critical research here, I therefore intend to construct a chronology of Paulista exhibitions as they related to- and indeed, continue to relate to- Brazil’s ongoing project of racial and national consolidation- primarily arguing that while these central institutions (Pinacoteca and MASP specifically) served to reflect and reinforce colonial legacies of race-based social control and the racialized rhetoric of nation-making through to midcentury, they have slowly been shifting since the 1980s towards strategies of critical pedagogy in order to establish their museums as important spaces of anti-racist confrontation and social change. For certain, I would argue that Brazilian museums are producing highly innovative museological models that can most definitely compete on the world stage- and which, I believe, deserve more critical attention from external academic circles. I therefore feel very passionately about constructing my thesis as an effective bridge between Brazilian museology and our current conversations on critical museum pedagogy in the United States.

My second and third weeks saw me travel back and forth between São Paulo and my family home in Tiradentes, Minas Gerais- a small colonial town with an exceedingly charming atmosphere. There I rounded out my secondary source research and formalized an outline for my paper. During my trips back to São Paulo I returned to the MASP archives to consult with three decades of exhibition records, from 1947-1977, and schedule upcoming appointments at Pinacoteca’s Centro de Documentação e Memória (CEDOC) and the Biblioteca Carolina Maria de Jesus at the Museu Afro Brasil. Right now, I am absorbing the modernist fantasy in Brasília while, of course, making my rounds to every national museum that I can. I also had the extreme pleasure of meeting Marcelo Araújo, president of the Instituto Brasileiro de Museus (IBRAM), and Renata Bittencourt, director of the Department of Museum Process at IBRAM, and am looking so forward to working with them and their colleagues on this project over the coming months.

Exposição Didática [Installation Details], Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateubriand, São Paulo, 1947 (Biblioteca e Centro de Documentação do MASP)
Exposição Didática [Installation Details], Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateubriand, São Paulo, 1947 (Biblioteca e Centro de Documentação do MASP)

“A Escultura Popular de Pernambuco no ‘Museu de Arte de São Paulo,” Diária de São Paulo, Jan. 1949 (Biblioteca e Centro de Documentação do MASP)
Mounting Exposição Cerâmica Nordestina, Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateubriand, São Paulo, 1949 (Biblioteca e Centro de Documentação do MASP)

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