One week ago yesterday, a devastating fire raged through the National Museum of Brazil that destroyed as much as 90 percent of the 200-year-old collection. Consisting of some 20 million artifacts, the collection housed in a former royal palace was protected only by an outdated fire prevention system.
The blaze may have started with either a paper hot-air balloon landing on the roof or an electrical short. Rescue attempts were slow because two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not working. Firefighters had to collect water from a nearby lake to battle the blaze that left the building standing, but gutted.
Now, both Wikipedia and a group of local students are campaigning to preserve some portion of the museum’s collections by collecting images and video from anyone who has recorded their visit to the museum.
Send Your Snaps!
There were over 20 million objects inside the #MuseuNacional. Did you take a photo of any of them? Help us preserve the memories of as many as we can and add them to @wikicommons. Here's how to do it from your desktop: pic.twitter.com/jMwbj15Kg3
— Wikipedia (@Wikipedia) September 4, 2018
Students at UNIRIO, the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, have also announced a worldwide search for photographs and video that were taken at the museum. It is hoped that images collected from visitors can be compiled into a sort of “virtual museum” to preserve at least some memory of the lost artifacts. This crowdsourcing of photographs of objects, rooms, installations, and exhibitions is similar to efforts initiated following the destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq 2015. Even your selfies can help if there’s a display in the background! To contribute to the student-led effort to compile this resource for Brazil, email your photos and video to email@example.com.
Keep It Going
Other efforts at preserving some aspect of the lost Brazilian collections are ongoing as well. One such project is from the 3D modeling website Sketchfab. Thomas Flynn, their cultural heritage lead, has posted 25 virtual renderings of museum artifacts to his profile page. All these models are available to the public.
And prior to the fire, the museum’s digital modeling team had completed scans of several of the museum’s most important artifacts themselves. But the collections themselves remain lost to the flames; particularly devastated are the collections of art and culture drawn from the many indigenous peoples across Brazil. The museum’s audio collection had recordings of indigenous Brazilian languages that have since died out. Those voices will never be heard again.
Preserving the Cultural History of Brazil and Beyond
So what else do we need to avert these tragedies in the future? Primarily, funding! There are many examples that demonstrate just how cash-strapped the National Museum of Brazil has been. For example, when a termite infestation closed one of the museum’s rooms, officials resorted to crowdfunding to reopen it. The museum’s annual budget has been dropping: a 35% decrease in just the past 5 years alone. Museum vice director Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte told Brazilian television that even just ¼ of the funds allocated to the construction of a single World Cup stadium when the country hosted the event in 2014 “would have been enough to make this museum safe and resplendent.”
And as is true in so many other fields, the sharing of knowledge and expertise can help avert future catastrophes like this. Fiammetta Rocco of the Economist has noted that the big encyclopedic museums in the West like the Met, the Louvre, and the British Museum all have technology and know-how to help less-resourced institutions like the National Museum of Brazil assess damage and cultural/historical impact. They have greater access to technology that can digitize collections and put them online for free (like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has done). These are important for those who can’t attend museums in person, and are also crucial “backups” in case of tragedy.
Well-resourced fellow museums can also help advise about strengthening governance. For instance, successful museums have independent boards of trustees that help with private fundraising. Museums with more resources can assist with risk assessment, focusing attention on the dangers of fire, flood, and theft. And finally, large museums could help provide or make referrals to improved conservation training. This would help curators and conservators repair damaged material while also caring for existing artifacts so they will last longer.
We shouldn’t need a tragedy like this to begin better safety and conservation practices. (Admittedly the sharing of institutional resources as mentioned above could get tricky.) But today, visitors can contribute their own small part toward rebuilding Brazil’s lost history.
Snapshots and selfies aren’t always as frivolous as they might seem.