“Colonial or Not Colonial, That’s the Question: Curt Nimuendajú as Collector for Brazilian and European Museums”

Peter Schröder, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco

The Brazilian anthropologist of German origin Curt Nimuendajú (1883-1945) is considered a central figure in the history of Brazilian anthropology. Although being a self-educated researcher he became well-known as one of the principal experts of Brazil’s indigenous population in the first half of the twentieth century. His biography is characterized by multiple activities as a brilliant ethnographer, an indefatigable recorder of indigenous language materials, a pioneer in Amazonian archaeology, and an unyielding defender of indigenous rights for life and land, but he became also known for his collecting activities for Brazilian and European museums. From 1914 until his death, he maintained permanent contacts as a collaborator with the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi in Belém. From 1923 to 1926 his main activity was collecting archaeological objects for the Gothenburg Museum in Sweden and from 1928 to 1930 he undertook two expeditions to the Brazilian backlands organizing ethnographic collections for the German ethnological museums in Leipzig, Dresden, and Hamburg. Even after having finished the contractual relations with German museums, he continued to sell ethnographic objects to European museums (especially Berlin and Gothenburg) until the beginning of WWII, but under the Vargas regime became legally obliged to hand over and sell the objects collected during his fieldwork to Brazilian museums (Museu Nacional and Museu Goeldi).

The main questions of this paper are: How to characterize Nimuendajú’s collecting activities? Can they be interpreted as a typical colonial enterprise undertaken by a white hetero male? The answers can only be found by studying the detailed documentation of his activities archived by various Brazilian, German, and Swedish museums and partially published. A careful reconstruction of the circumstances and courses of Nimuendajú’s expeditions and field trips shows that his case is not suitable to confirm certain stereotypes about collector’s activities for European museums.

Contrary to other cases, Nimuendajú did not organize the collections for museums by robbery, looting, or trickery, but by sometimes wearisome negotiations, payments, barter exchange, and stimuli to reproduce objects no longer fabricated, always establishing symmetrical relations with his indigenous hosts. While the relations of the Brazilian state with its indigenous populations are easily identified as colonial (or endocolonial, as Brazil is an independent country since 1822), Nimuendajú’s relations with the indigenous groups visited by him differ radically from contemporary patterns and practices. This reinforces our main stance that studying the historical practices of organizing collections for ethnological museums must be realized by careful evaluations of the collectors’ biographies for not running the risk to produce and repeat clichés and stereotypes.

Peter Schröder is associated professor in the graduate program for anthropology (PPGA/ Pos-Graduação em Antropologia) of the Anthropology and Museology Department (DAM/ Departamento de Antropologia e Museologia), Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), Recife, Brazil. Obtaining his Dr. phil. in Ethnology from the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms- Universität Bonn, Germany, in 1993, he conducted post-doctoral research in southern Ceará State, in 1995-97, and at Leipzig University, in 2010-11. His research interests are: indigenous societies in South America, development anthropology, economic anthropology, history of anthropology. Since 2009 he carries out research on the relations between Brazilian and German anthropology, focusing the life and work of Curt Nimuendajú.

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(Photo: private)