Rio de Janeiro's National Museum, particularly during the first mid-century of its existence, seems to have served, rather than to produce and instruct a local public in a scientific national pedagogic, to display before foreign visitors -scientists, aristocrats and politicians- not only samples of Brazil's splendid and abundant nature, but also of its capacity to `manufacture´ these into museum objects, and thus of the country's claim to modernity and progress. Many of these visitors´ accounts are now valuable sources of the museum's early exhibition designs, although many of them are written from a perspective of imperial contempt for the `eclectic´ and `unscientific´ choice of exhibits, especially regretting the small number of local objects, and instead the display of ordinary European animal and plant specimens. However, Ferdinand Denis, a romantic French traveller and the author of Brazil's first literary history, Résumé de l´historie littéraire du Portugal, suivi du résumé de l´histoire littéraire du Brésil (Paris 1826), replied to these complaints:
"A certain traveller has observed that at the Museu Nacional of Rio de Janeiro a swan and a robin were being shown. The matter is very simple, and the Brazilians would have a lot to talk about if they noticed all the vulgar birds from their countryside which we conserve in our museums."(Denis cited in Lopes 1996: 71)
While not all travellers seemed to agree, Denis was not alone in highlighting the museum's qualities. In 1825, Hyacinthe de Bougainville
, son of the great navigator and naval commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville, arrived at Guanabara Bay in command of the frigate Le Thétis and the corvette L´Espérance, on his way back from a journey which had taken him to the island of Réunion, to Manila, Macao, Singapore and Valparaíso, an expedition of which he was to produce a beautifully illustrated account, Journal de la Navigation autour du globe (Paris 1837). His memories of a visit to the museum concluded:
... as it is set up, or rather as it was then, this museum is highly recommended for viewing, and the way the mineralogical section -the only one that was finished- had been organized, made it clear enough that it is not due to the lack of taste or want of instruction, that a kind of disorder reigns amongst the other pieces. This one is splendidly rich in precious stones, and every sample has been classified and numbered in a way that makes it impossible to mistake its nature.
...mais tel qu´il est, où plutôt tel qu´il était alors, ce musée mérite fort d´être vu, et l´arrangement qui régnait dans la salle de minéralogie -la seule qui fût terminée, témoignait assez que ce n´est ni au défaut de goût, ni au manque d´instruction qu ´il fallait attribuer l´espèce de desordre qui se voyait dans les autres pièces. Celle-ci est d´une prodigieuse richesse en pierres précieuses, et chaque échantillon y est classé et numéroté de manière qu´il soit impossible de se méprendre sur sa nature.(Baron de Bougainville, Journal de la Navigation autour du Globe, Paris 1824-26, tome I: 612)
Aubert Du Petit-Thouars, a French botanist, comments on a museum visit some ten years after Bougainville:
The Museum, situated on the most beautiful square of Rio de Janeiro, is remarkable only for the order and cleanliness to be found there; it is rich in ornithology and mineralogy, but still poor in all other fields; it is little visited and does not seem to be to Rio de Janeiro more than a scarcely useful object of luxury.
Le Muséum, situé sur la plus belle place de Rio de Janeiro, nommée le Camp Sainte Anne, n´a de rémarquable que l´ordre et la propreté qui y règnent; il est riche en ornithologie et en minéralogie, il est pauvre ailleurs en tous les genres; il est peu visité et semble n´être à Rio de Janeiro qu´un objet de luxe peu utile.(Aubert Du Petit-Thouars, Voyage autour du monde, Paris 1836-1839: 62)
Francis de La Porte, Count of Castelnau (1812 - 1880), a French diplomat, philosopher and naturalist famous for his travel accounts of Africa (Mémoires sur les poissons de l´Afrique australe, 1843) and the Americas (Vues et souvenirs de l´Amérique du Nord, 1842 and Expédition dans les parties centrales de l´Amérique, 1840), was more severe in his judgment, when he visited the institution in 1843. At the beginning of the 14-volume account of his four-year crossing of the southern subcontinent from Rio to Lima, in the company of two fellow botanists and a taxidermist, Castelnau refers:
We visited, as we thought appropriate, the Museum of natural history, a small establishment located on the Campo de Santa Anna, and which had been founded by D. João VI. In a country whose animal kingdom has been so richly gifted by nature, it was difficult not to look in bewilderment at such a poor assembly of its diverse products; hardly does this collection comprise a quarter of the animals of Brazil. A room dedicated to the Indians and their ornaments offers some interest. However, undoubtedly the most complete part of this establishment is the one destined to the mineral kingdom. It consists mainly of the famous Werner collection, which was bought in Germany and to which some interesting series of Brazilian minerals have been added. The collection of crystallized diamonds is very complete and contains some remarkable forms. Numerous geological series of auriferous and diamantiferous areas would also be worth studying in detail. A monk and scientist, brother Custódio, is in charge of this part of the establishment.
Nous visitâmes, ainsi qu´on le pense bien, le Muséum d´histoire naturelle, petit établissement situé sur le Campo de Santa Anna, et qui a été fondé par D. João VI. Dans un pays où la nature a doté si richement le règne animal, il était difficile de voyer sans étonnement un aussi pauvre assemblage de ses divers produits: à peine si cette collection renferme un quart des animaux du Brésil. Une salle consacrée aux ornements et aux Indiens offre de l´intérêt. Mais la partie la plus complète de cet établissement est sans aucune dout celle qui est affectée au règne minéral. Elle consiste principalement dans la collection du célébre Werner, qui fût achetée en Allemagne et à laquelle on a ajoutée d´intéressantes séries de minéraux du Brésil. La collection des diamants cristallisés est très complète et présente des formes remarquables. Les nombreuses séries géologiques des terrains aurifères et diamantifères séraient aussi dignes d´être étudiées avec soin. Un savant moine, le frère Custodio, dirige cette partie de l´établissement.(Francis de La Porte Castelnau, Expédition dans les parties centrales de l´Amérique du Sud, 1843-1847, Paris 1850-59: 12)
In the 1860s, years before the institution would be entirely reformed by Ladislau Netto, the French ichthyologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, then a professor at Harvard University and the main contender of Darwin on the question of evolution, visited Rio to carry out glaciological research on what he presumed to be traces of a South American ice age.
Despite a ceremonious reception at the museum, his impressions were severely critical:
The Museum of natural history of the capital is an antiquity. Those who know what a lively and developing museum is will find that the collections of this one have remained without improvement or additions for many years; the mounted animals, mammals and birds, are rotten and the fish, with the exception of a few magnificent specimens from the Amazon, do not give an idea of the variety which one finds in the waters of Brazil; one would make a better collection, on a single morning, at the city market. The establishment also contains some beautiful fossil debris from the San Francisco, or the province of Ceará, but nobody has yet attempted to classify them.
Le Musée d´histoire naturelle de la capitale est une antiquaille. Quiconque sait ce que c´est qu´un muséum ayant la vie et le mouvement, réconnaîtra que les collections de celui-là sont depuis longues années restées sans amélioration et sans addition; les animaux montés, mammifères et oiseaux sont passés et les poissons, à l´exception de quelques magnifiques specimens de l´Amazone, ne donnent pas une idée de la variété qu´on en rencontre dans les eaux du Brésil; on ferait une meilleure collection, en une seule matinée, au marché de ville. Le même établissement contient aussi quelques beaux débris fossiles provenant du San Francisco ou de la province du Ceará, mais on n´a pas encore essayéde les classer (Louis Agassiz, Voyage en Brésil, Paris 1865: 491)
Visitors of the early twentieth century, in general, gave much more positive accounts of the museum which had now moved to the former Emperor's palace. Perhaps this was due to the fact that, rather than botanists and zoologists, these travellers were in their majority ethnographers, and thus appreciated the growing attention the museum had been granting to the native communities´ material culture over the last three decades. However, in 1908, Charles Richet stated in the museum's book of visitors:
I will cherish an unforgettable memory of this beautiful Museum, which in its palace -for it is a real palace- encloses all the treasures of Brazil's rich tropical nature. Everything is classified in a methodical order, which permits to gain a profound insight into Brazilian fauna and flora. Certainly none of the European museums can compete with this one under a specialized point of view. To get to really know and appreciate this beautiful National Museum of Brazil, one has to spend hours and days in it.
Otto Nordenskjöld, after a visit in 1912, writes in the same book:
I have been altogether impressed by the ethnological collections of Rio de Janeiro's Museu Nacional. They are quite broad and interesting, and arranged in such an elegant and scientific manner that they can actually serve as an example to the biggest museums of Europe.
The Museum, on the other hand, was at continuous pains to ensure that at least part of the collections assembled by foreign naturalists on their expeditions into Brazil´s interior remained in the country when these returned to Europe.
In the early days, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, the Empire´s first prime minister who had been a professor of mineralogy at Coimbra University, took it on himself to write personally to expeditionaries such as the Austrians Natterer and Sellow or the Russian baron Gregorij Ivanovitch Langsdorff, inviting them to make donations to the museum. Ladislau Netto, in his museum guide from 1870, recalls an occasion when, in 1864, the Museu Nacional sent a number of mineralogical, zoological and palaeontological samples to several institutions in the US, but never received any materials in return, and goes on to state that:
...this was not the only gift sent to this country by the Brazilian museum: others of considerable value have been made by a Museum which, if it had little to maintain itself, less still was there to give to others. However, these proofs of esteem and courtesy were never returned in due fashion by the North American museums, rich as they may be, to the poor but generous National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. Yes, they were not and that is a shame, and from now on more than enough reasons advise us to abstain from continuing such a disproportionate relationship.(Netto 1870: 131)
João Baptista de Lacerda, in 1906, once again bemoans the museum´s unfair treatment by its North American peers, and is especially concerned by the loss of exhibits shipped to Philadelphia and Chicago on occasion of the World´s Fairs of 1876 and 1899:
Rarely has the museum been lucky in its exchanges with peer institutions of other countries, and principally with the foreign collectors who, by way of payment, had agreed to collect a certain quantity of objects for the Museum. However, this was not the only mischief suffered by the establishment in its relations with foreign collectors and when sending objects abroad in order to figure in foreign international exhibitions. At the Exhibition of Philadelphia, in 1876, we lost many minerals of the collections exposed by the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. At the Chicago Exhibition, many specimens were damaged and, when returned to the Museum, could not be restored anymore. An important collection of Brazilian fossils, sent to the Marquis of Saporta in order to be studied and classified, remained for many years in this palaeontological botanist´s possession, and were lost after his death.(Lacerda 1906: 55)