Equity, Pathways, School Community

The Museum as a Catalyst for Education and Citizenship: Breaking Barriers in Rio de Janeiro

We believe in the role played by the National Museum of History as an agent for helping individuals understand themselves and the world in which they live, through the senses and through the chain of knowledge arising from them, making it possible to develop their reasoning, memory, and imagination.

Brazil’s National History Museum, Museu Histórico Nacional (MHN), established in 1922, is located in downtown Rio de Janeiro. It is the largest and most important history museum in Brazil and the first ever oriented to public education in the country. Over its eight decades in operation, MHN has maintained its tradition of educational improvement.

In Brazil, such educational services initiatives started in the 1950s in art museums, reflecting the period’s trend of organizing free art ateliers for children and young people. The movement grew stronger in the years that followed and reached into realms other than the arts.

During these years, the MHN’s Education Sector started a guided tour program to the galleries, stimulating historical perception by exposing young people to the items in its collection; but initially, there was not a truly educational program. However, after the 1980s, we developed a project for educators and primary school children based on the creation of action-producing images aligned with the construction and acquisition of knowledge and linked to the museum’s collection. Although valuable for the children involved, these programs did not reach the growing underclass in Rio de Janeiro society.

In the 1990s – and after 2001 in particular – the Museum’s Social Sector was established to undertake the difficult task of establishing relationships between the museum and the wider society, catering to children and young adults and working with a number of other organizations that assist children and adolescents and work to reintegrate social outcasts into the community.

By following the new museum-related trends and strategies advocated by the International Council of Museums (Icom), which is responsible for defining which institutions must be at the “service of society”, the MHN is expanding its programs, breaking new ground, and maintaining its role as a social player and an educator’s ally.

The Museum and the City

The city of Rio de Janeiro is internationally renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty. Located between the sea and high mountains, its urban growth stretches between maritime landfills and the settlements on the hills. The poorest segments of the population live both in mountainous regions and in urban outskirts: the ‘favelas’ are located in those regions.

Sadly, during the 20th century, drug dealing became a serious problem. Children and young people began abandoning their families, dropping out of school, and joining organized gangs, some of which are highly dangerous. These young people have little interest in the future. Their average life expectancy is around 25 years, and they live a “short-termist” lifestyle, with no future goals. MHN – located in the city center, with a commitment to education and the preservation of symbolic objects of the national inheritance – could not ignore this reality around it. So, in 1992, an educational program oriented to this segment of the population was started, and as of 2001 it gained a special dimension.

By searching for a better understanding of the past, we are showing that everyone – regardless of social environment – can play an important role in the great theatre of life. In this way, museums are active in safeguarding the future as well as the past.

The Program

This project grew out of the museum’s educational purpose and its preserved collection, which includes the testimonies and artifacts relating to the building of the country, a virtual trail of attitudes and actions.

As institutions that preserve cultural heritage, museums deal with the concepts of remembering and forgetting. They use historical figures as role models to work on the relationship between these two concepts and to show that everyone, regardless of age or historical context, can grow and contribute to a better society. By searching for a better understanding of the past, we are showing that everyone – regardless of social environment – can play an important role in the great theatre of life. In this way, museums are active in safeguarding the future as well as the past.

The target population for these programs includes disenfranchised children and young people aged 10 to 20 – those living in the streets, ex-street dwellers, children from poor communities, and young people from penitentiaries. These youth are often referred to MHN by other institutions and NGOs, many of which have formed partnerships with the Museum. Highly dangerous youngsters on parole are referred through the Federal Justice Ministry and the Justice Court of the State of Rio de Janeiro. In spite of concerns initially raised about possible damages to the property caused by this needy population, throughout these ten years not a single incident of property damage or physical injury to the employees and visitors has been observed.

Program activities are guided by monitors in the Museum’s Educational Sector, by restoration technicians, file specialists, and librarians working in the museum, and by professors hired on demand for specific projects. The resources come from institutions set up for the care of minors, from some NGOs, and from partnerships with banks, public and private enterprises, and educational institutions, which offer scholarships to the top students of each group.

The activities designed for this student population are divided into three major categories, subdivided into a number of programs:

  1. Cultural Leisure: Sowing the Seeds of History. This program is comprised of many guided tours to the exhibition galleries as well as activities geared to children. The purpose is to create a relationship with the museum space and – based on the proposed objectives – to establish the link between the past, the present, and the future. These activities are often accompanied by short videos or musical performances because these children and young people, due to their chemical addictions, often display very limited attention spans.
  2. Professionals of the Future. This program is subdivided into short- and long-term courses, some of which may last as long as a year. They train young people, providing them with theoretical and practical knowledge in handcraft, gardening, chair stuffing, furniture shining, cabinet-making, book and document conservation, to name a few. Technicians and museum restoration specialists, along with specially hired teachers, supervise their work, using the museum collections in the practical training. In order to meet the high demand for such activities, the Social Sector has contacted other cultural institutions, museums, collectors, and decoration stores which have started to accept the services provided by these young people. After completing the courses, many are hired for practical training at those places.
  3. Working World. This program is a training course to prepare young people for the formal job market, taught by museum staff and specially hired teachers. As reinforcement, classes are taught in Portuguese grammar, mathematics, and history, using museum exhibitions, information technology, public relations, etc. At the end of one course semester, the students start practical training in businesses. The business partners are committed to respect the school hours of the young people. The MHN itself receives close to 34 student trainees per year, offering them the opportunity for apprenticeship and the chance to experience the day-to-day routine and administrative rules of an institution.

In 2009, 5,489 young people attended these programs. In recent years, the Museum has also begun offering special programs for disabled children, senior citizens, and adults living in poverty.

Program Evaluation

Initially, our expectations were very low. The first groups consisted of 15 to 30 students, and little did anyone know whether the program would continue. The results, however, year after year, have shown a significant increase in both new programs offered by cooperating institutions and the number of young people enrolled. These marginal communities, which used to perceive museums as high-end spaces forbidden to the less fortunate, can now see that the barriers separating the poorest communities from the museums have fallen.

Many young people who attend the programs have managed to free themselves from drug addiction, stop smuggling, and move away from a life of crime. Some have even become instructors and managers of new groups and have established a highly emotional bond with the MHN. For this reason, in recent years a “Big Get-together” has been held to reunite ex-students and serve as a socializing event with the current students. Many bring their spouses and children.


The MHN senior management and the entire team are involved in the program, sharing the belief that the education task carried out in museums should not be limited to the exhibition of collections in permanent or temporary exhibits, reducing the discourse to merely praising the objects and rendering them intangible to the less fortunate. By opening its doors to a population deprived of cultural and educational contacts, the museum has become a catalyst for many types of social transformation.

Through this process, everybody learns: employees, teachers, visitors (who often express surprise that these young people – often regarded as dangerous – are appreciating works of art), and students. It is a painstaking task, requiring patience and persistence.

If, out of each group we receive, one young person would be rehabilitated to live in society, this alone would make life worth living! The importance of the Museum to human development has already become apparent.

EN BREF – Le Musée d’histoire naturelle du Brésil à Rio de Janeiro tend la main aux jeunes les plus marginalisés et s’établit comme un important partenaire en leur offrant des solutions de rechange à une vie de crime et de toxicomanie. La population ciblée de ses programmes comprend les enfants démunis et sans droits et les jeunes de 10 à 20 ans – les sans-abri, les ex-itinérants, les enfants de quartiers défavorisés et les jeunes de pénitenciers. Les programmes d’éducation tirent parti des collections du musée pour que les jeunes s’identifient à leur histoire et à leur place dans la société et pour qu’ils acquièrent des compétences qui leur permettront de travailler. En ouvrant ses portes à une population privée de contacts culturels et éducationnels, le musée est devenu un catalyseur de transformation sociale et de protection de l’avenir, ainsi que du passé.

Meet the Expert(s)

Vera Lucia Bottrel Tostes

Vera Lucia Bottrel Tostes, museologist and historian, is a professor at Rio de Janeiro University and Director of the Museu Histórico Nacional since 1994.

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