We have all heard of “Carnaval,” the wild festival of floats and debauchery that takes place on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for a week until Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent on the Catholic calendar. The celebration is the last fling before a long period of abstinence by Christians around the globe during which they don’t consume meat, drink alcohol, or engage in other worldly pleasures that lasts 40 days until Easter. The word “carnaval” is said to derive from the Portuguese “carne vale,” or farewell to meat. There are carnaval celebrations in many places, including Italy and Panama, to name a couple. The most well-known carnaval is the one in Rio.
But the carnaval in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, 2 hours by plane north of Rio, is actually the largest carnaval, known as the “largest street party in the world.” So it is appropriate that the innovative Casa do Carnaval da Bahia (Museum of Carnaval) opened in Salvador recently, on February 5. I was one of the early guests to see this first museum in the world dedicated to the carnaval.
The museum is designed not only as a memorial to carnaval, but as a research and reference center, a storehouse for the thousands of books, documents, and papers written about carnaval which has not existed before. That is why the government of this city spent $1.5 million to create this institution in the center of the city where all the action takes place, tucked next to one of its most famous landmarks, the Basilica Cathedral of São Gonçalves. The research center will be headquartered in the basement. On the top floor of the 4-story building is a café, Terraza do Samba, decorated with colorful flags with a stunning view of the expansive Bay of All Saints. The space is imagined as a locale for parties and gatherings.
Entrance to the museum is between $8 and $12 depending on how long you stay. It’s a little hard to find the door to the museum as it looks like a billboard. Look for the large plastic sculpture of Mardi Gras-type figures outside the cathedral’s doors and in front of the museum, and you know you are there. Mardi Gras is the American version of carnaval, so there is a correlation between the two festivals.
The museum takes a historical timeline approach to explaining the carnaval, which derived from the substantial slave traffic into Brazil from Africa that powered the sugar and tobacco plantations of Brazil for its early settlers. The designers of the museum go out of their way to give credit for the dances and masks used during carnaval to their African origins. It’s one way that this museum achieves one of its goals: to be a museum of freedom and joy, explaining how Afro-Brazilians have contributed richly to Brazil.
With current concerns about terrorism, masks are no longer permitted during carnaval—all of which is explained as the timeline brings us to the current day. One particularly good aspect of the museum is the interactive videos that draw in visitors. In a darkened room on the second floor, visitors are surrounded by the music of Samba and other Brazilian beats, given carnaval headwear, and taught how to move to the music. Since it is dark, no one is embarrassed by how poorly they are dancing. But by the end of the 10-minute video, narrated by famous artists or musicians (there are several), you are fully into the swing of carnaval with a desire to come to the real party. The mood is enhanced by lights, reflectors, and LED tapes.
If you don’t come to Salvador or Rio for carnaval but want to feel what it is like, don’t miss this one-of-a-kind Museum of Carnaval in Salvador.
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