The Museu do Marajó withstands lack of funding in its mission to make known the Pará island’s cultural diversity.
Inaugurated in 1987 in the city of Cachoeira do Arari, located three hours away by boat from Belém, the Museu do Marajó is an archeological experience for those who want to be acquainted with Pará’s Amazonian culture. The spirit of the site, created to be a community space where the population of the Island of Marajó is represented, is shown through a wooden box at the entrance containing the question: “What is the newest piece in the museum?” To find out, one has to open a lid containing a mirror and the sentence that reveals: “It is you.”
The object is one of the “peasant computers”: a series of rustic, totally interactive display furnishings, designed by the Italian priest Giovanni Gallo (1927–2003), founder of the Museum. “He would read into the wee hours of the night and in the morning he would arrive full of ideas. It was like that with the computers, conceived as 100 percent Caboclo pieces,” says vice-director of the space, “Seu Tacica” (Otacir Gemeque), 70, faithful squire to Gallo, in charge of building the objects. [“Caboclos” are descendants of indigenous peoples and Europeans; Caboclo pieces, thus, are pieces that display a variety of cultural influences.] One of the highlights of the collection is the “caco do Marajó”, as the Marajoara pottery is called, with its iconography of social norms and past visions of the world: they include ceramic funerary urns, stones, jars, plates and ceramic loincloths, which were given to Gallo by the inhabitants of the island, revealing the existence of peoples living there between the 5th and 14th centuries A.D. There are also feminine loincloths, which give rise to hypotheses regarding women’s participation in society of the period.
“The indigenous peoples of Marajó established survival strategies between whites and blacks and cultivated their culture, whether through indigenous designs, vocabularies, food culture or through spirituality. This history is told in verse and through the pottery at the Museum,” says Tainá Marajoara, National Councillor of Food Culture and founder of the organization Iacitatá Amazônia Viva, a food culture stand that resells products produced by Pará’s traditional communities.
Those who visit the location are also going to appreciate images, news stories, entries, a panel with the meaning of words in Tupi, objects, embroideries with Marajoara designs, stuffed animals and medicinal oils extracted from plants and animals emblematic of the history and culture of the Marajoara people’s history and culture up to the present day. There is even a panel about climate change and the threat of pesticide use to the environment. “Gallo’s idea was much more and, if he were alive, we would have discussions about the present as well,” says Tacica, who regularly receives tourists from all over the world and students from the region’s schools interested in the collection.
Gallo’s skills were many: fluent in various languages, photographer, writer, taxidermy expert, that he used to stuff dead animals, and extremely politicized, he lived the daily life of the Marajoara people in all its complexity. That said, he learned to respect the greatest force of the island: the water, which in the winter floods the earth and in the summer dries up, determining the harvest, fishing, hunting and residents’ mobility.
Slavery and racism
All of this experience with the people of the island gave Gallo the repertoire and capacity to collect the most emblematic objects in order to tell the story, intimately, of what the Island of Marajó is all about. There are thematic sessions dedicated to Amazonian basket weaving, to açaí, to flasks with medicinal plants from the rainforest, to the stuffed animals, to the realm of the cowboy and to the fisherman’s world. There are also domestic utensils used in Caboclo cuisine, like collections of pans, bowls, lamps and sections on ethical, religious and philosophical discussions.
The material used to discuss slavery and racism in Brazil is extremely rich, with objects of torture, entries with discriminatory phrases already incorporated in day-to-day expressions, such as “serviço de preto”, which literally means “a black person’s work”, but which has taken on the meaning of “a job poorly done”, clippings of advertisements for the sale or rental of slaves from the newspapers of the period and excerpts from the book, The Masters and the Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre.
“The Museum has held pottery-making courses, producing many replicas of antique pieces,” says Tacica. The challenge, according to him, is to maintain the most basic activities, like cleaning and protecting the pieces from the rainwater, which falls religiously every day, with a very limited staff.
The lack of funding and partner organizations poses one of the greatest threats to this great patrimony. “The Museu do Marajó holds a collection that is very rich in history and archeology and the way the exhibit is organized, with modules that allow the visitor to touch the written collection and to discover little by little what is behind the gadgets the priest created, is original,” states anthropologist Denise Schaan, professor at UFPA and author of the book, Cultura Marajoara (2009). “Today, unfortunately, the museum finds itself abandoned by the government.”
Beyond the exhibition space, Gallo also managed to start a music school and a garden with dozens of fruit trees, which shade sloths and produce traditional Amazonian medicinal oils. Before he died, he dreamed of recreating a “teso” (steep hill), an elevation that the indigenous peoples of ancient times made to build their houses and ritualistic spaces. The site would be part of the exhibit and would have pieces scattered about, like on an archeological site. The guardians of Gallo’s legacy could make his dreams come true – if they were to receive more support, including money.