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  • Writer's pictureSLAS

Museum ethnographies in Rio de Janeiro

Anthropocene gallery at the Museum of Tomorrow © Mariana Reyes.

My research project examines how major cultural institutions engage with the narratives and discourses of the Anthropocene. The term “Anthropocene” – the age of humans – was first introduced by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000. Combining the Greek words for ‘humans’ and ‘recent time’, the concept posits a new geological era shaped by the profound interventions that humans are imposing on the global environment. In other words, the Anthropocene proposes that human activities have become the central drivers of the geologically significant conditions in our time. These changes include bio-geo-chemical alterations to the composition of the atmosphere, oceans, and soils, which produce destructive ecological transformations, including climate change.

In 2019 I was a recipient of the SLAS Postgraduate Travel Grant. This award allowed me to travel to Rio de Janeiro, where one of my study cases is located: the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã). The Museum of Tomorrow is a science museum whose main objective is to explore, imagine, and conceive sustainable futures. As an experimental museum, this space presents the concept of the Anthropocene through a narrative that combines science and art, while using technology as a support in interactive environments and audio-visual facilities. Thus, in the Anthropocene gallery, visitors are expected to reflect on the human species as a geological power, a force that is altering the course of Earth’s deep history.

Earth gallery at the Museum of Tomorrow © Mariana Reyes.

My research in the Museum of Tomorrow encompassed institutional ethnography and semi-structured interviews. In particular, I examined the museum's permanent exhibition and analysed its textual and visual discourses. I also observed the visitors' engagement with the museum’s narratives on climate change, biodiversity loss, and other features of the Anthropocene epoch. Likewise, I conducted several interviews with the museum staff, including curators, guides, designers, and scientific advisors. Such conversations were extremely enriching as they allowed me to better understand the processes of appropriation and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Encounters on Black Cultures at the Museum of Tomorrow © Mariana Reyes.

As part of an extended stay in Rio, I was able to participate in the side events organised by the Museum of Tomorrow. For example, I attended several sessions of the 'Evidence of Black Cultures' monthly encounters (Encontros "Evidências das Culturas Negras"), a forum designed to discuss the importance of Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian heritage in contemporary culture. These encounters give an account of how the museum actively engages in epistemic dialogues with Black and Indigenous perspectives.

Lastly, I was able to participate in the activities organised by local climate action groups,

Climate strike on September, 20th 2019, called by the collective ‘Coalizão pelo Clima’ © Mariana Reyes.

notably the collective 'Climate Coalition' (Coalizão pelo clima). In taking part in this movement, I was able to get a clear grasp of aspects related to the intersection between science communication, climate action, and environmental policy.

Overall, I would like to thank the Society for Latin American Studies for the support I received through the Postgraduate Travel Grant. This bursary not only allowed me to undertake key activities for my doctoral project but also contributed to strengthening the Latin-American focus of my study.

Mariana Reyes

PhD student in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London.

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