Protesters in front of the National Museum Honestino Guimarães (photo courtesy Suyan Mattos)

Protesters in front of the National Museum Honestino Guimarães (photo courtesy Suyan Mattos)

A month and a half ago, Brazil lit up with protests as a million people took to the streets. The country is due to host the World Cup in less than a year (and the Olympics in less than three), but many Brazilians are increasingly unhappy with their government in the face of the impending soccer tournament. Why is the government spending money on huge stadiums when public services are being neglected?

In April, we reported on the eviction of indigenous people at the site of the Brazilian Indian Museum in advance of the World Cup, and now another, more prominent museum seems to have entered the fray: the National Museum Honestino Guimarães, or the National Museum of the Republic, part of the Cultural Complex of the Republic in Brasília.

The whole complex is the work of famed architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the museum as a kind of retrofuturistic dome, like an ancient mound of earth crossed with a spaceship. It opened in 2006, paid for and operated by the government of Federal District, Brazil’s capital. According to artist and protester Suyan Mattos, who wrote to Hyperallergic to explain the situation, “the space is used for traveling exhibitions of renowned local artist, nationals and international lectures, film screenings, seminars, and other events,” adding that the museum has a “priceless” permanent collection of contemporary Brazilian art but focuses on rotating and temporary exhibitions.

National Museum Honestino Guimarães (photo by Márcio Cabral de Moura, via Flickr)

The national government, however, is now apparently looking to federalize the museum. Mattos says the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is working on the scheme with Governor of the Federal District Agnelo Queiroz and Culture Minister Marta Suplicy, and she insists that one of the primary reasons for the decision is the World Cup.

“The National Museum has proposed a schedule for the World Cup with exhibitions of works by local artists, which is much more interesting to promote the arts in Brazil,” Mattos writes. “The proposal released by the Ministry of Culure is to bring exposure of Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which deals with decorations, architecture, and design, in addition to making an exhibition of football with international artists.”

She adds that the new plan would call for the creation of a “permanent exhibition of works that are scattered in ministries and public banks, obtained through estates without proper curatorial eye,” and that the Ministry of Culture is already having problems maintaining the organizations it currently runs, such as the the Cinematheque and the National Library.

Protesters hold their banner in front of a government ministry building, which happens to have a soccer ad hanging at the top (courtesy Suyan Mattos) (click to enlarge)

But mainly, Mattos seems concerned that a strong, nationally focused museum could turn into just another big-box one, with more of an eye towards the international art world than the local one. “We cannot lose this strong identity and capacity of the [museum to] dialogue with the local population and the formation of public art in Brasilia,” she says. “The National Museum contributes heavily to move the chain of creative and productive visual arts of Brasilia, unlike the federal spaces in the city, who do not have local influence on their agendas, incentives, and operation.”

We haven’t been able to reach anyone at the museum for comment, but a post on the blog Poemação seems to confirm much of Mattos’s story. The post says the government wants to pull works from various state collections into a permanent exhibition at the National Museum, as well as institute a partnership with the Victoria & Albert. Another blog post, this one on the Brazilian government’s culture website, offers more information on the partnership: it will initially last four years and will be an effort to “connect the utopian spirit and innovative architectural proposal of Brasilia with the idea of ​​museum of XXI century” (translation via Google Translate). Suplicy said at a meeting with the V&A’s director that it will amount to “New life for the National Museum, which will be completely renovated.”

Mattos is protesting that complete renovation, and has begun her campaign with small protests thus far at Buriti Palace, which houses the government of the Federal District, and at the Presidential Palace.

With additional reporting in Brazilian Portuguese by Zanna Gilbert

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...