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Museum Exhibitions and the Consecrated Object

Mauricio Candido da Silva
Specialist in Museology
Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo,
Av. Nazaré, 481, São Paulo
Brazil- CEP 04263 000.


This paper reflects on museum exhibitions and the significance of museum objects. Its purpose is to contribute to the understanding of changes in importance intrinsic to a museum object during the course of its institutional life. The object of this study was an archaeological vestige (a human skull named Miss Sambaqui) belonging to the collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. The research project is detailed and some questions regarding are raised.


One of my main interests has been the acquisition and change in value and meaning of objects subject to museological processes such as collecting, preserving, exhibiting and study. Archaeological and zoological objects are of particular interest in this respect. In their original state at the beginning of the museological process, zoological specimens are void of historical meaning. Archaeological objects, however, being historical, already have a cultural meaning when they enter the museum. I was always intrigued by how museology - or the museological process - aggregates new meanings to an object, transforms it, and ultimately creates a new completely different object. This transformation of the museological object can be understood as its withdrawal from its natural system or its loss of original function. 'It is like this with each thing that end up in this strange world where utility is banished forever.' (Pomian 1984: 51).

This paper is the result of an applied museological research project developed between 1999 and 2000 at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of the University of São Paulo/Brazil. The project looked at a specific object in a research collection of a university museum (Archaeology and Ethnology) with the purpose of studying its different meanings when submitted to a museological process, i.e. being collected, preserved, researched, interpreted, and displayed. Through a case-study it was investigated how an archaeological artifact became an institutional symbol of Brazilian archaeological research and preservation in the 1950s and how this symbol lost its meaning through the years and eventually acquired new strength in another research institution at the same university.

The general objective was to evaluate the capacity of the museological process to change the meaning of a scientific object in a research university collection. To address this objective, and better understand the museum phenomenon, I focused on a specific case. My attention was directed to a particular object, an archaeological vestige: the human skull called Miss Sambaqui1, kept at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of São Paulo University (de Blasis 1991). I have followed the institutional path of this archaeological vestige, first turned into heritage and later to become an institutional symbol. In 1954, after being brought to light and introduced into a museological process, Miss Sambaqui's image was turned into a stamp of the Pre-Historical Institute of São Paulo. This paper aims at describing the cultural transformation of this object, which was collected, researched, preserved and exhibited in different ways from the early days of Brazilian Archeology until today. Museological processes renew and transform the significance of the object. Based on this idea, the goal of my investigation was to identify different meanings of the same object in different museological settings.

The Formation of a Symbol

Some dates are important to understand the changes in Miss Sambaqui's meaning. In Brazil, archaeology only started in 1954, along the coast of São Paulo State, by an archaeological team coordinated by Prof. Paulo Duarte (1899-1984). Duarte was an important scientist that fought for the preservation of archaeological areas. He created the Pre-Historical State Commission of São Paulo and researched human settlements on the Brazilian coast, trying to discover the remains of the first Brazilians habitants (Duarte 1968). Miss Sambaqui represented the conquest of this territory, but it also represented the fight for its preservation.

After Miss Sambaqui was collected, it was preserved and displayed in a room at the Pre-Historical State Commission of São Paulo at São Paulo University. It was the most important object on show, displayed in the first room that visitors would enter. Unfortunately there are no images of this exhibition. In 1969, the Pre-Historical State Commission of São Paulo became the Pre-Historical Institute of São Paulo University. Miss Sambaqui became an institutional symbol and its image was printed on a stamp. During the same year, Prof. Paulo Duarte was banned from the University by the military government of that period. At the same time, new vestiges of human settlements were discovered in the interior of Brazil. Throughout the 1970s, Miss Sambaqui continued its role as an institutional symbol. In 1979, a new exhibition was prepared and the skull was again the principal object. This exhibition celebrated the 27th anniversary of Pre-Historical Institute. However, in 1984 the Pre-Historical Institute organized another exhibition and this time the skull was not the principal object anymore. It was still important, but it shared the theme of 'first habitants' with other objects (Bruno 1984).

In 1989, an important institutional transformation forever changed the symbolic character of Miss Sambaqui. The Pre-Historical Institute of São Paulo University was incorporated in the Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum, together with two other archaeological and anthropological collections of the University, resulting in a single new institution. In its actual exhibition, opened to the public since 1995, Miss Sambaqui provides evidence of this fusion, as it shares the space with countless others objects.

However, when I was developing this study I discovered that Miss Sambaqui as a symbol did not die. It has migrated to another institution called Biology Institution of University of the São Paulo where there is a Human Evolution Laboratory coordinated by the Professor Doctor Walter Neves. He worked in the Pre-Historical Institution of University of São Paulo from the 1970's to 1980's and he has a professional trajectory similar to Doctor Paulo Duarte. About ten years ago Dr. Neves coordinated the team that discovered Luzia, the most ancient Brazilian Human vestige. Miss Sambaqui is the symbol of his laboratory, not Luzia.

The Museological Exhibition As Institutional Representation

By selecting a given object and following its museological path it was possible to better understand the changes occurring in the meaning that adhere to these kinds of objects, as well as the different meanings that are given to them. Different ways of showing an object can be seen as evidence of the institutional life of the object.

From a theoretical perspective, three basic concepts guided this study. The first is related to the notion of 'collection as any assemble of natural or artificial objects kept temporally or definitively out of the circuit of the economic activities subjected to a special protection in a closed place prepared for this purpose and exposed to public observation' (Pomian 1984: 53). This would include objects in the research collection of a university museum, such as Miss Sambaqui. The second basic concept refers to the museum object as a document. In its broadest sense, this concept stems from the notions of 'testimoniality', 'documentability' and 'fidelity' (Russio 1983) that characterize collections of objects as a vessel for meanings. Finally, the third concept framing this research was that of exhibition as a privileged space in the 'organization of objects for the sake of transmitting feelings' (Meneses 1992: 106). The study was developed having this theoretical frame. I have applied these three concepts to understand how Miss Sambaqui - an object of a research collection of a university museum - displayed in that was exhibited in university museums in different ways could transmit different feelings as well as testified the institutional changes.

The study assumes the museological process as a paradigm (Leon 1978). That means that a museological object was collected, is under protection, it is communicated and evaluated. Its presence or its absence decides the status of the exhibition. It is possible to set up several kinds of exhibitions but to make it a museum exhibition it is necessary to have the presence of the object - as well as the exhibition scenery (museum, museum process) and the public (visitors, social agents). Methods applied in the study included bibliographic research and interviews with people involved in different stages of the museological process, data treatment and the production of images.

Results and Discussion

After analyzing the different ways of exhibiting Miss Sambaqui, researching the bibliography, interviewing some people and studying some images some questions arose: is there a 'museological material culture'? Could it be that apart from being a Science 'in formation', Museology is also a 'science of transformation'? Is the 'museum fact' (Russio 1983) - the point of departure of the public contact with the exhibition object - a long moment of the museological phenomenon? More than providing answers to these questions this study tried to formulate them in a coherent and relevant manner. Another challenge of this study was related to the definition of a museum object. To formulate these questions notions about the steps of the museological process - such as collecting, preserving, researching, communicating, analyzing and evaluating - were of crucial importance.

The study proposes the introduction of the concept of material culture (Funari 1988) to the museological analysis, based on a particular case-study. Until recently, the museological process was primarily understood in terms of social appropriation (Santos 1987). The museological object has a history of its own, an institutional tie, and its function is constantly transformed by researchers, curators and visitors. A museological object may offer different views of the 'appropriation of culture' (Pearce 1994) and the same object in different museological settings provides evidence for different forms of 'communicating ideas' (Ferrara 1991).

Museology is a 'science in formation' (Russio 1984) and is subject to historical factors as well as social appropriation. It can also be understood as a Science of the Transformation of museological objects as well as a Science of Social Transformation. In other words, museological action takes shape in the significance sphere, both in relation to the semiophore aspect of the museological object and in relation to the social-historical character inherent to its practice.


'Museum Exhibitions and the Consecrated Object' is a study that aimed at searching for an increased value of the museum object. The object was understood as material support of information that must be continuously preserved, researched, communicated, analyzed and evaluated. It is a dynamic process that has the transformation as an essential characteristic. The registration of this different moments allows museology to analyse a long historical process, its changing character and the social practices that cross the museological process. In this way, the old prejudice of museums being only places for old things or simply warehouses for ancient materials could be falsified.

Finally, some recent studies of the working process in museums have emphasized the questions mentioned above, particularly those related to zoological. When a zoological object enters the museum circuit, it undergoes a radical transformation from natural object into historical object. The transformation of a natural object introduced into the museum process differs from that of an archaeological or any other material culture object that have an aggregated historical value. The main question resulting from this study - is there a Museological Material Culture? - must be answered differently in connection with objects without a cultural past. This indicates that beyond its "semiophore" quality (Pomian 1984), the natural history object has its original value transformed into a material culture value when it become subject of human's social practices, such as in the realm of Museology.


1. The skull was retrieved from a shell mount, sambaqui being the local word for such a mount.


I am grateful to Peter Stanbury and to Peter Tirrell for the organization of the UMAC Conference 2003. In particular, I thank Peter Tirrell for helping me and encouraging me to participate. I am thankful to Marta Lourenço for her important comments on an earlier version of this paper. I also wish to thank São Paulo University and VITAE (Apoio à Cultura, Educação e Promoção Social) for the incentive and financial support for my participation. A special thanks to Marilúcia Bottallo for her sweet presence.

Literature Cited

Bruno, M. C. O. 1984. O museu do Instituto de Pré-história: um museu a serviço da pesquisa científica. Unpublished Master thesis, São Paulo University.

De Blasis, P. A. D. & S. C. M. Piedade 1991. 'As pesquisas do Instituto de Pré-História e seu acervo: balanço preliminar e bibliografia comentada.' Revista do Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da Universidade de São Paulo 1: 165-188.

Duarte, P. 1968. O sambaqui visto através de alguns sambaquis. São Paulo: Instituto de Pré-História de São Paulo.

Ferrara, L. D'A. 1991. Leituras sem palavras. São Paulo: Ática (Série Princípios).

Funari, P. P. A. 1988. Arqueologia. São Paulo: Ática (Série Princípios).

Leon, A. 1978. Museo: teoria, praxis y utopia. Madrid: Cuadernos Arte Catedra.

Meneses, U. T. B. de, 1992. 'Discurso museológico: um desafio para os museus.' Ciência em Museus 4: 103-127.

Pearce, S. 1994. 'Editorial introduction.' In S. Pearce (ed) Museums and the Appropriation of Culture pp. 1-2. London: Athlone.

Pomian, K. 1984. 'Colecções.' In Romano, Ruggiero (org) Enciclopédia Einaudi. Memória-História (vol. 1), pp. 51-86. Porto: Imprensa Nacional/Casa da Moeda.

Russio, W. C. G. 1990. 'Conceito de cultura e sua inter-relação com o patrimônio cultural e a preservação.' Cadernos Museológicos Nž 3. IBPC. Rio de Janeiro.

Santos, M. C. T. M. 1987. Museu, Escola e Comunidade: uma integração necessária. Bahia, editora da UFBA.

© September 2003
Candido da Silva
Specialist in Museology at the Zoological Museum of São Paulo University, Brazil. Mauricio is currently taking his Master in Architecture at the College of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo.