The general memory jelly

Porto Alegre City Hall flooded. Photo by Elson Sempé Pedroso


The rains that fell in Rio Grande do Sul also resulted in serious damage to the memory contained in the historical collection of the Porto Alegre City Council

“Someone [who] cries for me”
(General Jelly, Gilberto Gil and Torquato Neto, 1968).

The rains that fell in Rio Grande do Sul did not just victimize its population. They also resulted in serious damage to his memory. From the citizens' point of view, thousands lost their photo albums, essential support for communities to archive memories. In the midst of their pain, citizens reported their efforts to rescue old photographs. In addition to citizens, institutions were also affected, such as the Rio Grande do SUL Arts Museum (MARGS) and the Rio Grande do Sul Public Land Map Archive, located on Av. Praia de Belas, located in regions taken by water.

Architect Juhani Pallasmaa says that “it is difficult to remember, for example, a familiar or iconic photograph as a two-dimensional image on photographic paper: we tend to remember the object, person or event depicted in its full spatial reality”, all the more reason to consider how Any loss of memory media is tragic.

This was also what happened with the historical collection of the Porto Alegre City Council, an institution where I worked for more than 36 years, 20 at the Memorial alone. The first images of what happened to my workplace after the rains on May 16th. Until then, the servers only knew that the flood had flooded the ground floor. It was the camera photographer Elson Sempé Pedroso who took the initiative to publicize and record what was left after the water receded: the first nine photos that arrived on the servers' WhatsApp group, for me, who spent three decades in the legislature, were heartbreaking.

The first floor, right at the entrance, where I welcomed students visiting the legislature as part of the Guided Visit project, was covered in mud. In the Medical Outpatient Room of the house, where I have taken students and interns, furniture was knocked over, everything was dirty. In front of the legislative portico, where school buses came to park in the chamber's courtyard to be attended to later, fish were on the grass. The winter gardens, spaces that served to draw students' attention to the artistic works installed there or even the microflora, were soaked. The images showed water surrounding the Chamber, and inside it, floors were raised, exactly as in the homes of families in the capital affected by the flood and broadcast by the media. The “house of the people” suffered like its people.

The last image from that selection that caught my attention is of the Memorial. She shows one of the historic cabinets where valuable documents were kept, empty, fortunately, marked by water. From the images, it is possible to see that the water reached half a meter high, little considering the proximity of the river, probably because the protection barrier still made a difference there. A security guard provides light for the photo to be taken, because at that moment, the camera has no electricity.

It was then that I saw, in the background, the immense sliding iron cabinet also hit by water and I could imagine the tragedy in archival terms. Memorial, as well as the Protocol and the Historical Archive, are sectors located on the ground floor of the institution to facilitate public access. It was never imagined that its archives, the material basis of the legislative's political memory, and, therefore, of the city, could be at risk. There are also files from the Human Resources area on this floor, with the entire lives of the house's employees and councilors. Those closed sliding files had the function of offering security, but like the city's floodgates, they were not enough to allow the water to advance.

Memorial of the Porto Alegre City Council flooded. Photo by Elson Sempé Pedroso/ CMPA

I can talk about the Memorial because I helped gather its collection. I am saddened not only by the lost documents, but by the library that I helped to organize there. Why a library? For research. You look at the soggy books and remember the fact that throughout the time you were head there, I myself acquired, with my own resources, the literature I needed for the projects I created such as Guided Visit, Aula na Câmara, Câmara vai a Escola and Exhibitions Itinerants.

Only this last project, which involved 50 exhibitions, was created based on this collection. Fortunately, most of the Memorial's library and documentation were not affected, as only the shelf closest to the ground was touched by the waters. But the damage is enough to cause immense sadness, offset by imagining the enormous effort of the staff who managed to save most of the collections, including councillors, maps and objects, days before.

A heroic gesture, in conditions of lack of light and on the weekend, which unfortunately did not prevent the loss of part of the DVDs of TV Câmara recordings, and part of the negatives of photographs, another important base of memory. It's just that when you save, you have to make choices when the waters rise. Exactly like the citizen cornered by the waters.

I was called by the head of the memorial on Tuesday, 4/6, to help indicate works that should be studied for future restoration. I returned to the Chamber exactly one year after the start of my retirement and to my work space. As in the famous scene from Planet of the Apes (1968), where the character Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, finds the destroyed top part of the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he is at home, I realized what the waters did to the memory of the legislature: in A large room that used to be a server cafeteria, a rescue bunker containing hundreds of boxes of collections, documents and books from various affected sectors was set up.

This scene was the revelation of the face of the destruction of a memory. In the documents area that was my responsibility to collaborate in that space, something around 3m2, I indicated folders of newspaper archives, typed documents and other donations that should be evaluated for preservation purposes. It's the first screening. There will be others. Collections, processes and photographs are fundamental primary sources for the memory of the house and the city that the chamber is responsible for preserving.

In the context of flooding, it is your responsibility to the extent that the rescue technique allows. Fortunately, thanks to the actions of its employees, management, councilors' collections were preserved. They reveal the councilor's agenda and political preferences. They are the ones who help the councilor to justify the bills. When a councilor donates a collection, he donates his “way of thinking”.

There were collections of newspaper clippings that were not from the councilors' collection. They were a collection transferred by the library to the Memorial. When I was chief, I was concerned with collections that were in other sectors and that had memory value. The Library's old newspaper library, organized in the 1970s and 1980s by the head librarian at the time, when the digitization process was introduced and a company was hired for this service, was suspended. There was then an enormous amount of newspaper clippings, everything that appeared in the press, at the time, was organized. This material is invaluable.

Imagine the time it takes researchers today to find this information in period newspapers in our museums, such as the Hipólito José da Costa Social Communication Museum. The material organized the city's journalistic production about the chamber, a civil servant's 30-year life's work. That was part of the memory of the 1970s and 1980s of the legislature that was under water, everything organized into folders year by year, by subject. Do you have any idea how much work this takes? It's a life dedicated to cataloging. This is remarkable. In the successive administrative reforms of the chamber, the position of archivist disappeared. With the flood, it's time to recreate it. Here's a tip for councilors.

Memorial collection affected by water. Photo Jorge Barcellos (personal collection).

I also saw a series of binder files. These pieces were very important because they were the process files that were kept in the old Protocol, in the old chamber, still in the Siqueira Campos Building. When the building changed in the 1980s, I took them to the memorial and then they went to the Chamber's historical archive. Why are they important?

When I joined the legislature, in the early 1980s and before the computer revolution, a server organized the information of a process on files, in line with older processes, a tradition that came from the 1940s onwards. The problem is that with computerization, the processes went to one side, the Historical Archive, and the files to another, the Protocol. And in the Historical Archive, the organization is by process number. How to find a theme? It cannot. It has to have a number. Only through the chips. Archival organization stuff.

The only way to find the issues or councilors and their processes was through those forms. Did you understand the researcher’s drama? No number, no research. The processes in one sector, the records in another. Imagine the difficulty. When I realized this, I immediately ran for the chips to go to the memorial. Files. It seems like it doesn't matter, but it does. He understands? In the 1980s and 1990s, these were the problems we faced in the field of memory, which was changing with the advent of information technology and which that collection embodies there. Solutions began to emerge in the 2000s, with the idea of ​​digitalization. This process was underway, but the rain arrived first. It's time to speed up the process, another tip.

Collection boxes from other affected sectors Photo: Jorge Barcellos (personal collection)

Most of the books were saved, especially those relating to the history of Porto Alegre, essential for research at the Memorial. Another emotional moment. The part that was affected by the waters was the product of obtaining institutional donations for research purposes. You begin to remember that each book was a struggle, each work a search. Each institution that released a work, I would go and get a copy donated to the library. Can you imagine what an “ant” job this is? See a launch and ask for it by mail and thus a collection is created with the recent history of the city and used in the house's projects: books on the history of the Notarial Registry, the life of Assis Brasil, all of this helped to build an immediate history of the city and state. Those books are therefore part of the intellectual trajectory of an institution.

Exactly how were the books I saw? They turned into… jelly. General jam, like music. The majority suffered what is called interlocking, which is the union of the leaves together. I'm not a restorer and I have no idea if that material could be saved, but given the conditions, I doubt it. My criteria was to consider only rare or notable works in the collection for preservation study purposes, without the possibility of finding them in second-hand bookstores, bookstores or other libraries and the basic documentary material.

For the former, selection based on visible assessment of the collection. For the second ones, I indicated the full selection for later evaluation. The selection is based on principles listed in the document “Recommendations for the rescue of archival collections damaged by water”, produced by the Technical Chamber for Document Preservation of the National Archives Council (2012) which indicates, among the techniques, selection for the purposes of freezing and subsequent recovery. It is important to say that the teams made every effort to preserve the city council's infrastructure after the flood, through the issuance of Service Order 6/2024, which approved the Chamber's Recovery and Contingencies Plan, which defines all activities , tasks and guidance to employees to enable the reoccupation of the facilities safely, after the calamity suffered.

In line with this proposal, I pointed out what I considered rare and which was in the affected memorial assets and requested that it be included: a copy of the Internal Regulations of Companhia Carris, published in 1929, a rare volume that describes the importance of bus conductors; a copy of the Contribution to the Study of the Urbanization of Porto Alegre, by Ubatuba de Farias, a page in the history of urbanism in the capital of which very few reproductions were made in the 1930s. Furthermore, works that I considered symbolic and rare for recording the flood in the chamber, among other pieces, such as the Porto Alegre Environmental Atlas, by Rualdo Menegat, a notable work of reference. If we had listened to the author, perhaps the damage would not have been so great.

Unfortunately, many things were lost, such as books and educational kits from various institutions donated to the Memorial. The collections in photography boxes, organized by Banco Itaú, now sold out, were inspiration for photography projects in schools along with legislative material; notable publications on human rights for children, used in the visits, turned into jelly. There is nothing that can be done and those responsible for the projects will have to reinvent themselves to revive the ideas for these projects.

Furthermore, they will have to face the tragedy that recovering what is possible from this portion of the collection compromised by the flood tragedy will not be cheap. It will involve qualification of servers, provision of resources and equipment, among other measures. This needs to be done because it involves the legislative legacy: parliament will only be able to leave something for the city, for future generations, offering what it really is, its history. To do this, you need to be aware that those wet documents make you aware of what the institution is, what it has to offer its citizens.

Why do I go to so much trouble to save old documents? Because history matters. Councilors and civil servants are often lost in their routine. Therefore, more than ever, they need to undertake an inner journey that only memory makes possible, the self-discovery of what only history offers. Now, by preserving its memory of and in the flood, parliament recognizes new ways of being political in the capital and its role in all of this over time.

Only if parliament makes a commitment to itself, to the preservation of its memory, can it make a commitment to others, to the citizen. If the image of the documentary tragedy has merit, it is that it serves to improve the councilors' worldview, to offer them a new reading of the world, that politicians are also connected with nature and that they must, in their sphere of competence, do efforts for its preservation.

This is also empathy: hit by the flood, the legislature feels the same pain that its citizens feel, and is therefore in a position to increase its political and environmental awareness to fulfill its role. Like in the song “General Jelly”, by Gilberto Gil and Torquato Neto, from the album Tropicália or Panis et Circenses (1968), the general jam of documents is a call for councilors to recognize the importance of the environmental agenda, at the same time as asking for a new vision from our politicians on the topic.

Jorge Barcellos, Historian, he has a PhD in Education from UFRGS and a retired member of the Porto Alegre municipal legislature. Author, among other books, of Education and Legislative Power (Authors' Club).

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