Preservation doesn’t get high marks in Brazil. In the last 100 years
or so the country elite has been dominated by a rush for progress. The country has been
mesmerized by modernity and any modern building is considered better than an old one. The
most appropriate image of Brazilian society would not be the historical buildings in Rio
de Janeiro, but a most modern city, Brasília, the built-from-scratch capital, a town with
By Pedro Paulo A. Funari
Before discussing a particular experience, it is necessary to explore the different
meanings attached to the concept itself of "cultural property or heritage".
Romance languages use terms originated in the Latin patrimonium to refer to
"property inherited from one’s father or ancestor, heritage, inheritance", like
it was the case in Middle English. Germans use Denkmalpflege, "the care of
monuments", whilst the English language adopted "heritage", originally
restricted to "that which has been or may be inherited", but through the same
process of generalization which affected the Romance "patrimony" it too was to
be used as a general reference to the inherited monuments from older generations.
In all these expressions, there is always a reference to remembrance, moneo
(Latin, "to cause or make to think", in both patrimonium and monumentum),
Denkmal (German, denken "to think"), and to the forefathers,
implicit in "inheritance". Side by side with these rather subjective and
affectionate terms, liking people to their real or supposed ancestors, there is also a
more economic or legal definition, "cultural property", or "cultural
assets", as is usual in Romance languages (Italian, beni culturali), implying
a less passionate and personal link between monument and society, so much so that it is
treated as a "property". As the definition of "property" is a
political one, "cultural property is always a political matter, not a theoretical
one", as Carandini (1979: 234) put it.
The questions raised by the organizers of this session on "Restoration or
conservation?" bear direct relation to this dichotomy, which opposes an emotive
"Heritage" to a more distant "cultural property". Indeed, "what
happens when contemporary uses of monuments apparently conflict with their historical
value?", "is there a case for allowing monuments to decay rather than be
preserved?", "can planned destruction ever be justified?", "who has
the right to decide?", these are all questions which are inextricably linked to the
tensions between "Heritage" and "cultural property".
Or in other words, everybody can claim that a monument is part of "our
heritage", as is the case of proud Brazilians who claim that a colonial city is a
"World Cultural Heritage", but only scholars or officials refer to
"cultural properties". The right to decide is thus an essential aspect of the
whole debate about the destruction or conservation of monuments and it is only
understandable through a study of the insertion of Heritage perception in a particular
society. The aim of this paper is to discuss how Brazilian society has been dealing with
Heritage and what are the tasks of the academic community.
Not so long ago, Joachim Hermann (1989: 36) suggested that "an awareness of
history is closely connected with archaeological and architectural monuments, and that
such monuments constitute important landmarks in the transmission of historical knowledge,
understanding and awareness". There is no identity without memory, as the lyrics of a
Catalan song put it: "those who lose their origins, lose their identity too"
(Ballart 1997: 43). Historical monuments and archaeological remains are powerful purveyors
of messages and by their own nature as material culture, they are actively used by social
actors to produce meaning, particularly materializing concepts like national identity and
We should however strive for seeing these artifacts as culturally constructed and
culturally contested rather than as in possession of inherent and a-historical meanings,
inspiring us to think about them, instead of simply admiring them (Potter n.d.). An
anthropological approach to one’s own cultural heritage contributes to unmasking the
manipulation of the past (Haas 1996). The Brazilian experience in this respect is
crystal-clear: the official fabrication of the past, including by means of heritage
management, is constantly reinterpreted by ordinary people.
As summarized Antônio Augusto Arantes (1990: 4): "Officially preserved Brazilian
heritage shapes a distant and foreign country, only accessible in one way, were it not the
fact that social groups re-elaborate it symbolically". These strata are those
excluded from power and thus from heritage preservation.
There has been traditionally a lack of interest by archaeologists in interacting with
society at largeas is the case, by the way, elsewhere in Latin America, as notes
Gnecco (1995: 19)and heritage in particular has been left to "writers,
architects and artists, the true discoverers of cultural heritage in Brazil, not
historians or archaeologists" (Munari 1995). The preservation of colonial church
buildings could be considered, in Brazil and in the rest of Latin America (García 1995:
42), as the oldest heritage management.
It is interesting to notice that the importance of the Catholic Church in the
colonization of the Iberian New World explains the strategic choice of preserving these
buildings, be they temples built over the remains of Native structures (cf. the Maya
example in Alfonso & García n.d.: 5), be they churches in hills dominating the urban
landscape, as was usually the case in Brazil. However, even church buildings were not
particularly well preserved in Brazil, with notable exceptions and this is due to the fact
that in the last one hundred years or so the country elite has been dominated by a rush
for so-called progress, so much so that the Republican flag carries the slogan "Order
Since the proclamation of the Republic in 1889, Brazil has been mesmerized by modernity
and any modern building is considered better than an old one. There were several reasons
for transferring the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a newly constructed city, Brasília,
in 1961, but whatever the economic, social or geopolitical reasons, it was only possible
by a state of mind prone to constant movement towards modernity. The most appropriate
image of Brazilian society would not be the historical buildings in Rio de Janeiro, but a
most modern city and even the most humble rural dwellers in the backlands should overlook
their own local material heritage in favor of a city with no past (Funari forthcoming).
Perhaps the clearest example of this fight against material remembrance is the huge
megalopolis, São Paulo City, whose growth has been unparalleled elsewhere. Even though
founded in 1554, it was a small town up to the late nineteenth century and in the last one
hundred years it grew to become the largest city in the southern Hemisphere. In the
process, old remains suffered constant ideological and physical degradations, new
buildings being constructed in order to create a completely new city.
The historical buildings are the Cathedral and a Modernist Park planned by the renowned
Niemeyer, both inaugurated in 1954 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city’s
foundation. The main public buildings, like the Governor’s Palace, or the State Assembly
building, are also quite recent, and the most important avenue, Paulista avenue, founded
at the end of last century as a bastion of elite mansions, was completely remodeled as
late as 1970s.
Even in colonial towns though, some of them well known abroad, as is the case with Ouro
Preto, declared a World Heritage Monument, modernity is always present, as ordinary
inhabitants of the town are keen to modernize it. Guiomar de Grammont (1998: 3) describes
this reality with strong words:
"The gulf between the public authorities and the people is the same as that
between civil society and the past, due to the lack of information, even though the
inhabitants of colonial towns depend on tourism to their own survival. Who are the
strongest enemies of the preservation of these colonial towns? First and foremost the town
administration itself, unaffected by the social problems and ignorant of cultural issues
in general, but sometimes the inhabitants too, unaware of the importance of the monuments,
contribute to the deformation of the urban setting. New windows, parabolic antennas,
garages, roofs, and whole houses are altered enough to transform a colonial town into a
modern one, a mere shadow of an old colonial town, as is the case with so many of
It is easy to understand that people are interested in having access to modern
facilities but, as foreigners are the first to note when they visit these colonial towns,
if Medieval building in Europe can be completely refurbished without damaging the
buildings themselves, there should be no problem in doing the same in a Third World
context. Another common menace to the historical heritage of these colonial towns is the
thievery, as thieves are very active against the protected artistic heritage scattered
around more than five hundred church buildings and local museums (Rocha 1997).
A more prosaic problem is the deterioration of monuments due to lack of basic
maintenance and shelter, even inside buildings (Lira 1997). These three menaces to the
preservation of cultural properties, apparently unrelated, reveal a common underlying
cause: the alienation of the population, the divorce of people and authorities, the
distance separating common concerns and official elite ethos and policies. There has been
a "heritage policy which preserved the Big-Houses, Baroque Churches, Military Forts,
the Town Council Houses and Jails as the reference to the building of our historical and
cultural identity and it has relegated to oblivion the slave-quarters, the slums and the
workers cabins" (Fernandes 1993: 275).
For ordinary people, there is then a sense of alienation, as if their own culture were
not at all relevant and worth of attention. Traditionally, there were two kinds of houses
in Brazil: the houses of two or more stores, called sobrados, where lived the
elite, and all other forms of dwellings, such as the casas ("houses", but
with the same meaning as in Latin, "any simple or poorly built house, a hut",
recreating the opposition domus/casa, now as sobrado/casa), mocambos
("from kimbundu, mukambu, "ridge", used to refer to ordinary poor
dwellings), senzalas (collective slave-quarters), favelas (slums or
shanties) (Reis Filho 1978: 28).
The result of a society grounded on slave labor, from the inception there are two
groups of people in the country, the people in power, the powerful with their material
culture and their splendor, whose memory and monuments are worth of reverence and
preservation, and the squalid remains of the subaltern, worth of disdain and disregard. As
the senior sociologist Octavio Ianni (1988: 83) emphasized, what is considered heritage is
the architecture, music, pictures, paintings, and everything else associated to elite
families and to the upper crust in general.
The Cathedral, used by the "good people" is to be preserved, whilst the Saint
Benedict Church building, used by the "poor people", the so-called "Native
Blacks" (pretos da terra), is not protected and is often left to decay. The
monuments considered as heritage by the official institutions, according to another
leading anthropologist, Eunice Durham (1984: 33) are those related to the "history of
the ruling classes, the monuments preserved are those associated with the deeds and
cultural production of these ruling classes. The history of the ruled are seldom
We must agree with Byrne (1991: 275) when he contends that it is usual for the dominant
groups to use its power to push its own heritage to the fore, minimizing or even denying
the significance of subordinate groups as it crafts a national identity in its own image,
but the degree of alienation of upper and lower echelons of society is usually not as
accentuated as in Brazil. In this context, it is not surprising that ordinary people do
not pay too much attention in protecting cultural property felt as foreign, not directly
related to themselves.
There is a saying in Brazilian Portuguese which explains a lot about this sense of
alienation: "they are white, so they must solve problems among themselves". It
is interesting to notice that this sentence is used by white people too to refer to
authorities in general. The same alienation affects heritage, as colonial buildings, for
instance, are considered as "their problem, not ours". We could say that the
search for a modern life, irrespective of the destruction of cultural properties, could
well be interpreted as a kind of struggle not only for better living conditions but
against the material remembrance of secular suffering by subaltern people.
Archaeological heritage stricto sensu should not be affected by this lack of
interest in preserving elite material culture, as archaeology produce evidence of Natives,
slaves, ordinary people in general. However, there are several factors inhibiting an
active engagement of ordinary people in archaeological heritage protection. First and
foremost, there is a lack of information and formal education about the subject. Natives,
Africans and the poor are seldom mentioned in history syllabuses and often the few
references to them are detrimental, as they are portrayed as a lazy and backward mass of
serfs who have always been unable to reach civilization.
Indians were considered as fierce enemies, rightfully decimated over the centuries. In
a famous debate, in the beginning of this century, Von Ihering, director of the Paulista
Museum, in São Paulo, proposed the extermination of the Kaigang Indians who, according to
him, were hindering the development of the country (Schwarcz 1989: 59) and even though he
was challenged by other intellectuals, mainly from the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro,
his stance was and still is very symptomatic of the low esteem for Native peoples, even
within the academia. It is enough to say that Native material from the West of São Paulo
State, found eighty years ago are only now being exhibited in the area, thanks to an
innovative and critical museological project by the University of São Paulo (Cruz 1997):
better late than never!
Blacks, for their part, were considered as menacing barbarians, or, as put it recently
a most renowned Brazilian historian, Evaldo Cabral de Mello (Leite 1996): "It is not
possible to deny what the seventeenth century maroonPalmares was: it was Black
republic, it was destroyed and I prefer, let me say frankly, that it was so. For a simple
reason. If Palmares were to have survived, we would have in Brazil a Bantustan, an
independent and impractical state". So a leading historian still feels he is menaced
by Blacks and mimics Cato’s words: delenda Palmares! To be able to profess such
ideas ex cathedra says a lot about the indoctrination of prejudices which, one way
or another, reaches ordinary people (Funari 1996a: 150 et passim).
And last but not least, there is a lack of communication between the academic world,
particularly the archaeological community, and the people. Archaeologists should work with
the community, not to it (Rússio 1984: 60), giving people a better understanding of the
past and of the world around them, to enlighten them (Hudson 1994: 55). To achieve this,
long-term research should lead not to quick-fix entertainment (Durrans 1992: 13), but to
an integration of processes, such as rescuing historic buildings and excavating
archaeological sites, and products, such as publicizing the scientific work through
different media (Merriman 1996: 382).
A good example of this is the fate of a particularly important archaeological site in
Brazil: the seventeenth century maroon, known as Palmares. Since the 1970s, people
suspected that the famous runaway settlement, which survived fighting against slavocracy
for almost the whole seventeenth century, was to be located in the backlands of the
Northeastern State of Alagoas, at the Serra da Barriga or Potbelly Hill. Black rights
activists found surface remains at the hill and were able, after an unprecedented
campaign, to force the authorities to declare the area a National Heritage site in 1985.
However, due to complete lack of interest on the part of the archaeological
establishment, controlled by a bunch of conservative practitioners linked to the military
dictatorship (Funari 1995b: 238-245), the site was left to the discretion of local
authorities. The result was the use of bulldozers to level an important part of the site,
enabling the authorities to promote festivals and, naturally, to cajole people into
supporting them to local offices.
In the early 1990s, when archaeological fieldwork began at the hill, one of the main
aims was to work with local communities and with Black activists, so that the people could
understand the site and its importance and could thus oppose the mere entertainment use of
the archaeological area. The empowerment of those traditionally excluded from
decision-making (Jones 1993: 203) would only be possible through a massive scientific and
media publicization of the archaeological work. In the last six years (1992-1998), the
archaeologists in charge of the site, Charles E. Orser, Jr. (1992;1993;1994;1996), and the
author (Funari 1991; 1994a; 1995a; 1995c; 1996a; 1996b; 1996c; 1996e; 1996f; Orser &
Funari 1992) published three books totally or partially on Palmares, eleven papers in
scholarly journals (four abroad and seven in Brazil), as well as two more papers by a
Ph.D. student, Scott Allen (1997a; 1997b), and another one by Michael Rowlands (1988).
Furthermore, several newspaper and magazine articles, both in Brazil and elsewhere,
were published or broadcast on the site. It is probable that this is not enough to change
radically the subjective attitude of ordinary Brazilians towards the humble evidence
coming from the maroon, as the overall context in Brazil would not be completely altered
by an isolated scholarly activity, but still a lot more people are now aware of the
existence of the site and of its possible significance.
Indeed, fifteen years ago, in the last phase of military rule, Olympio Serra (1984:
108) offered a strong interpretation of Palmares, as a possible model for a
non-authoritarian society: "There should be an opportunity to recreate the experience
of a pluralistic society, as was the Palmares Republic. And if you look at this most
attracting phase of Brazilian history, you will see that at Palmares there were not only
Blacks, but also Indians, Jews, in other words, all the people discriminated by the
colonial society, all those who were different".
Some years later, the fieldwork at the Hill produced archaeological evidence, which now
substantiate this humanist approach. Palmares owed its growth and survival and final
destruction to the role it played in coastal/inland trade, as mercantile interests and
Palmares opposed those of the nobility and plantation slave owners, which were able to
triumph in the end, due to the strength of pre-capitalist groups in both Portugal and in
the colony (Rowlands, forthcoming). The crushing of a tendency towards pluralism in the
early history of Brazil explains the persistence of racist and upper-class discourse, as
mentioned above, and the archaeological work in rescuing the material culture of the
maroon, as well as its preservation as cultural property, plays thus a non negligible role
in fostering a critical awareness inside and outside the academic world.
Restoration or conservation? In the case of Brazil, the right to decide has always been
in the hands of the elite, whose priorities have been both narrow-minded and ineffective.
High-style monuments, protected officially by law, are by and large left in the hand of
free-market agents, and the illegal trade on antiquities is largely tolerated. Upper-class
archaeologists do not bother to hide their ties to antique shops and elite exhibitions.
Ordinary people feel alienated both from the elite heritage and from archaeological
humble evidences, as they are continuously taught to despise Indians, Blacks, mixed
people, the poor, in other words, themselves and their ancestors. In this context, the
scholarly tasks confronting archaeologists and heritage officials in the country are
particularly complex and contradictory.
We must struggle for the preservation of both high-style and humble cultural
properties, for the democratization of information and education, in general. Above all,
we must pledge for the empowerment of ordinary people, for their right to knowledge, for
our right as both scholars and citizens, to work with the people in their own interests.
As scholars, first and foremost, we should foster the search for critical knowledge about
our common heritage. And this is no easy task.
I owe thanks to Professors Peter Ucko and Robert Layton for the incentive to write this
paper and to the following colleagues who helped me in different ways: Scott Allen, Josep
Ballart, Brian Durrans, Juan Manuel García, Siân Jones, Charles E. Orser, Jr., Parker
Potter, Michael Rowlands. I received a grant from the World Archaeological Congress to
attend the meeting in Brac, Croatia, and the preparation of the text was made possible too
thanks to stays in London, at the Institute of Archaeology in February 1997, with a grant
from the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq) and in the University of Barcelona, as
visiting scholar, in January 1998, with grants from the Universities of Barcelona and
Campinas. The ideas presented here are my own, for which I am therefore solely
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The original title of this paper is "Destruction and Conservation
of Cultural Property in Brazil: Academic and Practical Challenges."
Pedro Paulo A. Funari, BA, MA, Ph.D., is an archaeologist, University of
Campinas professor, author of several books and papers; e-mail address: email@example.com