The Black Museum
Museu do Negro
The Black Museum is situated at the back of the 18th century building of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Saint Benedict Black Brotherhood.
Chattel slavery was ended in Brazil in 1888, making it the last country to abolish this horrifying practice. It would be 50 more years, however, before the realization that this institution housed a huge African and Afro-Brazilian cultural patrimony.
The museum was founded in 1938 curating instruments of slavery, furniture, documents, banners, abolitionist flags, books, photographs of men who were celebrated in the campaign for abolition, such as: Luíz Gama, José do Patrocínio, Joaquim Nabuco, Castro Alves, André Rebouças, Cruz e Sousa and others, as well as artwork, handicrafts, tools, and so much more.
In 1967, a fire destroyed the building and many artifacts—shackles, torture instruments, the tabernacle and 2 banners that were being restored—were lost. After the reconstruction of the Church, the museum was reopened in 1969.
When I first went there in 2004, one could hardly call it a museum. There was no curator, there were no hours, and I was able to enter the space and wander it at will. There were leaks in the ceiling, with large plastic tarps hung in failing attempts to stop the water from damaging the artifacts. Display cases were cracked, broken, and propped up. The paint was peeling off of the walls, mold was everywhere and there were holes in the floor so large, one had to be very careful to not fall through into the church!
After several restoration projects, the Museum was most recently reopened in 2013. There is currently a wonderful curator who is diligently trying to upgrade and expand the Museum and its place as a primary historical resource in Rio de Janeiro. In spite of his competency and enthusiasm, he continues to be challenged by the church officials, by budget constraints, and by a lack of a staff. On top of that, recent discoveries have uncovered many more artifacts that had been believed to have been lost in the fire, but in fact remain. Documents, books and archives that no one had looked for, assuming they'd been lost, in fact are now piled halfway to the ceiling in his office!
Moreover, the Brotherhood in Rio was the main Brotherhood for all of Brazil. That means that all documents generated by all of the Brotherhoods throughout Brazil had to be copied to Rio de Janeiro. There are hundreds of boxes of Brotherhood archives sitting at the Historical Society that have yet to be touched. These archives could contain documents such as land deeds, receipts for purchases of enslaved people, freedom papers, marriage licenses, birth and death records, as well as information about abolitionist movements, meetings, organizations and related activities—as far back as the mid 17th Century!
As of this writing, the space continues to evolve. Every time I go there, there is something new, something different. This space is a living resistance in what may be one of the oldest contested Black spaces in the history of the City of Rio de Janeiro.
How to get there:
Here's where it gets a bit complicated. When the museum reopened in 2013, they closed the old entrance and opened a new entrance on the other side of the building. However, the new entrance is closed and one can only access the museum by going into the old entrance and following a serpentine path through the building to get back to the other side.
The old entrance, which is open, is located at Praça Monte Castelo, 25. If you are facing the Church, there is a small alley that runs on the right side of the building. Walk down, and number 25 is marked at the very back end of the building, which is now on your left. If you enter, there is usually a security guard sitting just inside. If you don't speak Portuguese, just say, "moo-ZAY-oo doo NEG-roo, poor-fahv-OOR" and you will be shown the way.
The new entrance, which is closed, is located on Rua Reitor Azevedo Amaral. If you are facing the Church, it is the small alley that runs on the left side of the building. At the back of the building, you will see a sign that says, "Museu do Negro, Fundado em 1969" next to a gated door that is chained and padlocked. This door is most often found behind tightly parked cars and motorcycles, piles of trash and puddles of seeping sewage. Someday, however, I assume this entrance will be open.