Sao Paulo’s Portuguese language museum returns 6 years after devastating fire
By Carlos Meneses Sanchez
Sao Paulo, Jul 21 (EFE).- The Museum of the Portuguese Language, an institution housed in this Brazilian metropolis’ Estacao da Luz station, went up in flames in late 2015.
It is now opening its doors to the public once again six years later in the heart of Sao Paulo, offering a historically rich and socially inclusive tour of the world’s fifth-most widely spoken language.
Although there are 260 million Portuguese speakers spread across nine countries, few spaces around the world are specifically devoted to that Romance language.
Sao Paulo’s Estacao da Luz is one of them.
Three levels of that emblematic metro and train station, originally built in 1901 and used by hundreds of thousands of people every day, once again will become an interactive space for celebrating the language of Jose Saramago and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis as of July 31.
The museum began operating in 2006 but was engulfed in flames on Dec. 21, 2015, a blaze that claimed the life of a firefighter who died of smoke inhalation.
Isa Grinspum, one of the curators of the museum’s permanent exhibition, told Efe she remembers the fire as if it were yesterday. She said she was returning home by car when she received a call from a television station asking her about the blaze.
She initially thought it was a prank call but then stopped her vehicle, saw that it was true and began to cry. “It was a tremendous shock, an enormous loss, but it gave us the chance to rethink the museum, which is a unique opportunity,” she said.
Back-up security copies enabled the museum’s almost entirely digital collection to be recovered, although the original structure designed by Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1928-2021) – winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2006 – and his son Pedro was lost.
An investigation that concluded in June 2019 determined that the cause of the fire was a defect in one of the building’s reflectors.
But now, following a severe economic crisis and a pandemic that is blamed for nearly 550,000 deaths in that South American country, the Museum of the Portuguese Language will finally be re-inaugurated on July 31 and offer several new experiences to visitors.
That new start comes after an “intense reconstruction process” that took years and enlisted the contributions of artists, intellectuals and musicians, the museum’s technical director, Marilia Bonas, said. All told, 86 million reais ($16.5 million) were spent on the rebuild.
The museum is starting a new phase with the same overarching objective as before: to celebrate the diverse forms of the Portuguese language spoken around the world.
Those different dialects are the result of indigenous and African cultural influences, as well as the incorporation of linguistic elements from a variety of other languages, including Japanese, Spanish and Italian.
The museum traces the history of the Portuguese language from its Latin origins to its multiple present-day varieties, ranging from the types of Portuguese spoken in rural areas to those found in the favelas (shantytowns) of Brazil’s largest cities.
“The idea is to propose a space for dialogue, reflection and discovery of all that potential of the Portuguese language. Ultimately, it’s about answering the question, ‘what does this language want and what can it do?’ paraphrasing Caetano Veloso,” Grinspum said in reference to that famed Brazilian composer and singer’s song “Lingua.”
One discovery, for example, pertains to the origin of the word “samba” that, according to one theory, stems from the Bantu (a family of languages in southern Africa) word “samba” or “semba,” which means a type of dance similar to the batuque, in which the dancers press their bellies together suggestively.
In recent years, however, a new etymological current has linked the word “samba” to the Kimbundu (a Bantu language) verb (ku)samba, which means “to pray.”
The museum also approaches the history of the Portuguese language from a critical standpoint, particularly through its examination of the violent colonization process and the brutal toll it exacted on indigenous peoples and thousands of slaves brought from Africa.