The Existances Museums project began in 2020 as a collective effort to reimagine the role of museums in a particular region of Brazil. Museums traditionally bring together different objects, histories and narratives in a single location where they are then made available for research, preservation and display. The Existances project reverses this model by imagining a network of small, temporary structures spreading knowledge across a specific region – in this case the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Here, ecological knowledge developed by African and Amerindian communities has helped to prevent the destruction of ecosystems by large-scale agricultural businesses. Building on the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the term ‘Existances’ is inspired by the continued resistance shown by these communities in protecting their land and ways of life, which constitutes specific forms of existence and ecological knowledge.
In recent years Minas Gerais has witnessed a significant increase in agroindustry, with coffee and soy plantations, livestock farming and sugar cane mills breaking the established connections between peasant people (caipiras) and their companion plants and animals. Large-scale agribusiness poisons soils with pesticides and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the clearing of forests to create pastures. In contrast, the traditional practices of Afro-diasporic and Amerinidian peoples are built around a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Such connections were already fractured by years of colonisation. Today, the cosmological heritage of traditional groups is seen as an urgent alternative to stop the harm caused by industrial agriculture in the region, which has such a profound effect on the planet as a whole.
The Existances Museum project aims to promote and spread the knowledge and experience of Afro-diasporic and Amerindian communities across Minas Gerais and beyond. The museums would be itinerant, disseminating ecological wisdom in dialogue with different people and places, including those developing new agroecological, permacultural and bioconstructive technologies. A network of provisional structures would encourage collective, shared authorship of ideas and innovations responding to specific places and concerns. These small museums would come to life on their own, becoming spaces of constant exchange about how to live well in the Anthropocene and – if possible – even reverse it.
Traditional museums are in many ways monuments to the global colonisation produced by modern Western civilization. Often built to last forever, their desire for eternity mirrors the worldview imagined by modernity. The preservation at all costs that such monumental spaces demand represents an ecological footprint we can no longer afford. Moreover, in addition to this physical footprint, there is a psychological impact expressed in the trauma experienced by all people for whom traditional museums celebrate the dispossession and subordination of their own bodies.
Decolonizing museums is perhaps not enough if it does not imply a substantial transformation of what constitutes them in their most elementary features. Reimagining the role of museums in times of global warming offers an opportunity to rethink their temporalities, spatialities and subjectivities. Many of the people in the communities involved in the Existances project had never visited a museum. It is precisely their voices and their experiences, as a reflection and example of just futures, that the Existances Museums intend to shelter, strengthen and defend. A pilot initiative documented in the video included here allowed us to glimpse the constitution of an expanded network of potential existances, capable of bringing into contact the struggles of communities that, although arising from different trajectories and traditions, converge in the defense of their respective worlds against a common threat.
All the groups we spoke to showed surprise and interest when faced with the possibility of reinterpreting the word “museum”. If before this was perceived as a type of institution alien to their lives, now these groups have reflected on the possibility of building, themselves, spaces in which their struggles can be materialized and known by people from other places and even from other countries.
In this way, Existances Museums are primarily places of encounter. The circulation of local knowledge from communities that have resisted the end of their worlds for more than five centuries is, without a doubt, one of the main ways of facing the threat posed by global warming and other planetary disturbances of our present.