Wikipedia Leads Effort to Create a Digital Archive of 20 Million Artifacts Lost in the Brazilian Museum Fire

The staggering loss of a possible 20 million artifacts in the fire that consumed Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio boggles the mind—dinosaur fossils, the oldest human remains found in the country, and, as Emily Dreyfuss reports at Wired, “audio recordings and documents of indigenous languages. Many of those languages, already extinct, may now be lost forever.” Former Brazilian environment minister called the destruction of Latin America's biggest natural history museum "a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory."

The incalculable loss of culture and history seems all the more tragic given that it might have been slowed or stopped but for government cuts that left the museum with crumbling infrastructure and without a sprinkler system or even water for the hydrants outside (firefighters had to get water from a nearby lake). But assigning blame, while necessary to prevent future catastrophes, will not restore the museum’s treasures or the many years of research its staff lost when their offices went up in flames.

Sadly, as Dreyfuss points out, like many museums around the world, the Museu Nacional had not begun to back up its collection digitally. But it may not be entirely too late for that, in some small part at least. In an announcement last week, Wikipedia called for a post facto crowdsourced backup in the form of user-submitted photos.

“We’re asking people everywhere to join our global community,” wrote executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Katherine Maher, “and help the world recover from this collective tragedy.” Maher describes the fire as a “devastating loss of 200 years of history,” but of course, it’s much more than that. The museum contained not only prehistoric artifacts, but also Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies, Greek vases, and many other ancient treasures. You can get a sense of the scope of its collections at the museum’s website and browse the visitor-submitted photos at Wikimedia.

“Thousands of images have already been uploaded,” reports Brazil’s O Globo. Few of them contain any identifying information, and it will fall to scholars or knowledgeable Wikipedia editors to provide it. Other institutions around the world are also responding. GeekWire notes that “National Geographic, UNESCO and the French government have offered support for restoring the museum and reconstituting its collection.” It may rise from the ashes, but most of the museum’s former contents will only exist through the photographic documentation of its many thousands of visitors.

If you were one of those visitors, you can submit your photos to Wikimedia Commons (see the instructions above, or at the tweet here). Students from the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro are also “heading up their own crowdsourcing effort,” GeekWire notes. “They’re even soliciting selfies from past visits.” Here's hoping this tragedy spurs governments to provide the needed funding for museums in the future, and pushes museums that are not doing so to make digital archiving a priority.

Related Content:

1.8 Million Free Works of Art from World-Class Museums: A Meta List of Great Art Available Online

25 Million Images From 14 Art Institutions to Be Digitized & Put Online In One Huge Scholarly Archive

Free: Download 70,000+ High-Resolution Images of Chinese Art from Taipei’s National Palace Museum

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free: Download 70,000+ High-Resolution Images of Chinese Art from Taipei’s National Palace Museum

During China's Ming and Qing dynasties, which together spanned the years 1386 to 1912, few in the Middle Kingdom, let alone elsewhere, could hope for even a glimpse of the finest Chinese artworks of their time. But recently one museum has made a trove of art and artifacts from those dynasties and others digitally accessible to the world, and a museum outside mainland China at that. "According to popular news website The Paper," writes the BBC's Kerry Allen, "Taipei's National Palace Museum has placed 70,000 high-quality electronic images in a free-to-download archive so that online users can enjoy its exhibitions" — and without the hassles of "glass barrier and lighting restrictions."

First established as the Palace Museum in 1925, after the expulsion of China's last emperor Puyi, the National Palace Museum began its collection with valuables belonging to the former Imperial family. Now, writes Hyperallergic's Claire Voon, it boasts "one of the largest troves of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts, from paintings to rare books to all sorts of objects made of jade, bronze, ceramic, and more."

The digitization and uploading project, called National Palace Museum Open Data, offers an English version site, "although that is currently a rather limited and incomplete resource. The Chinese version features two portals to more efficiently comb through the museum’s relics. One is specifically for painting and calligraphy works; the other, for everything else."

Still, the National Palace Museum has been improving its English portal, which allows searches not just by category of object but by dynasty, a list that now reaches far beyond the Ming and Qing, all the way back to the Shang Dynasty of 1600 BC to 1046 BC. But even as the English version catches up to the Chinese one — as of this writing, it contains more than 4700 items — it will surely take some time before National Palace Museum Open Data catches up with the complete holdings of the National Palace Museum, with its permanent collection of about 700,000 Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks spanning eight millennia. As with Chinese history itself, a formidable subject of study if ever there was one, it has to be taken one piece at a time.

via Hyperallergic

Related Content:

1.8 Million Free Works of Art from World-Class Museums: A Meta List of Great Art Available Online

The World’s Oldest Multicolor Book, a 1633 Chinese Calligraphy & Painting Manual, Now Digitized and Put Online

Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration Gets Performed as a Modern Dance: A Creative Video from a Taiwanese Airline

China’s New Luminous White Library: A Striking Visual Introduction

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

New York Public Library Card Now Gives You Free Access to 33 NYC Museums

If you're one of the 8.5 million people living in New York City, take note of this: When you sign up for a library card from the New York Public Library, you can get access to 30,000 free movies (including many from the Criterion Collection) and also some 300,000 Free eBooks. But that's not all. A new initiative lets members of the New York Public Library (plus the Brooklyn and Queens libraries) to sign up for a Culture Pass and thereby gain free entrance to 33 museums across NYC. The list of participating museums includes some big ones--the Met, Morgan, Whitney, Frick and Guggenheim. Also the MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and more. Find a complete list below.

The Culture Pass website has more information about this new program. The website is also where you will need to actually make reservations to visit the museums. According to Hyperallergic, "Each cardholder is eligible for one pass per cultural institution annually and allowed to reserve two impending visits at any given time."

New Yorkers, you can sign up for library cards via these links: New York Public Library, Brooklyn Library, and Queens Library.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Participating Museums

  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden
  • Brooklyn Children's Museum
  • Brooklyn Historical Society
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Children's Museum of Manhattan
  • Children's Museum of the Arts
  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
  • The Drawing Center
  • The Frick Collection
  • Historic Richmond Town
  • International Center of Photography
  • Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
  • Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
  • The Jewish Museum
  • Louis Armstrong House
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • The Morgan Library & Museum
  • Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1
  • Museum of Chinese in America
  • Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
  • Museum of the City of New York
  • New York Transit Museum
  • Noguchi Museum
  • Queens Historical Society
  • Queens Museum
  • Rubin Museum of Art
  • SculptureCenter
  • Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
  • Society of Illustrators
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • Sugar Hill Children's Museum
  • Wave Hill
  • Whitney Museum of American Art

via Hyperallergic

Related Content:

New Yorkers Can Now Stream 30,000 Free Movies, Including the Entire Criterion Collection, with Their Library Cards

The New York Public Library Lets Patrons Download 300,000 eBooks

How to Paint Like Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol & More: A Video Series from the Tate

Learn How to Print like Warhol… in five minutes?

That sounds like fun! My Saturday’s pretty open…

Unfortunately, The Tate’s How To series is a bit of a misnomer. This is not the anyone-can-do-it approach of PBS legend Bob Ross and his Happy Little Trees

Yes, the short video demonstrations come with supply lists and step-by-step instructions, but without an existing fine arts background, you may feel more than a little bit daunted, pining for the sort of kid-friendly modifications that help second graders mimic famous artists with such aplomb.

Rather than relegate your freshly-purchased screens, roll of acetate, and economy-sized container of photo-emulsion to the same closet where your cross country skis, foreign language cassettes, and beer-making kit are currently spending eternity, we suggest that you not buy them at all.

Instead, appreciate the way these videos bridge “the gap between Art History and Art Creation,” in the words of one viewer.

So THAT’S how Warhol and untold thousands of other artists, including this segment’s guide Marianne Keating, make their prints! A lot of equipment! A lot of precise steps. Maybe some day you’ll take a stab at it.

’Til then… Keating picked former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley as her subject. Who would you choose?

Artist Sui Kim’s segment on Wassily Kandinsky’s approach to painting inspires a semi-abstract scene from her South Korean childhood, using the same color palette as Kandinsky’s Cossacks.

What would you paint?

Though before blithely slapping a second-grader rainbow on your vision and assuming you now know how to paint like Kandinsky (whether or not you know how to paint), check out the Tate’s description of the original:

Painted between 1910 and 1911, Cossacks is an expression of Kandinsky’s belief in the power of art “to awaken this capacity for experiencing the spiritual in material and in abstract phenomena.” The dynamic tension between abstract form and concrete content may be read as a manifestation of the wider conflict between the forces of political oppression – Kandinsky had been deeply moved by the strikes and upheavals in Odessa a few years earlier – and the hunger for spiritual rejuvenation consequent upon the rise of soulless modernity. Like his contemporaries Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse, Kandinsky saw painting as an extension of religion, capable, as he wrote in his Reminiscences (1913), of revealing ‘new perspectives and true truths’ in ‘moments of sudden illumination, resembling a flash of lightning.’ The echo of the Ancient Greek writer Longinus’s notion of sublime speech, which similarly strikes like a bolt of lightning, is carried over into Kandinsky’s description of the spiritual mission of the modern artist. In his 1911 essay On the Spiritual in Art, he compares the life of the spirit to ‘a large, acute-angled triangle,’ at the apex of which stands the solitary artistic genius dispensing spiritual food to the multitudes below.

Pretty complex stuff!

Perhaps Picasso is a more straightforward proposition.

Reckon you could rope a friend into modeling for a Cubist portrait a la Bust of a Woman (1909)? If so, which friend, and what might you do for them in return?

Other artists in the Tate’s How To series include J.M.W. Turner and sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Watch them all here.

Related Content:

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Painting Free Online: 403 Episodes Spanning 31 Seasons

The MoMA Teaches You How to Paint Like Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning & Other Abstract Painters

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.

Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

Related Content:

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in its Original Ancient Language, Akkadian

Hear the “Seikilos Epitaph,” the Oldest Complete Song in the World: An Inspiring Tune from 100 BC

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Visit an Online Collection of 61,761 Musical Instruments from Across the World

The study of musical instruments opens up vast histories of sound reverberating through the centuries. Should we embark on a journey through halls of Europe’s musical instrument museums, for example, we should soon discover how limited our appreciation for music history has been, how narrowed by the relative handful of instruments allowed into orchestras, ensembles, and bands of all kinds. The typical diet of classical, romantic, modern, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, or whatever, the music most of us in the West grow up hearing and studying, has resulted from a careful sorting process that over time chose certain instruments over others.

Some of those historic instruments—the violin, cello, many wind and brass—remain in wide circulation and produce music that can still sound relevant and contemporary. Others, like the Mellotron (above) or barrel organs (like the 1883 Cylinderpositiv at the top), remain wedded to their historical periods, making sounds that might as well have dates stamped on them.

You could—and many an historian has, no doubt—travel the world and pay a personal visit to the museums housing thousands of musical instruments humans have used—or at least invented—to carry melodies and harmonies and keep time. Such a tour might constitute a life’s work.

But if you’re on a budget or your grant doesn’t come through, you can still tour Europe’s musical instrument museums, and two museums in Africa, from the comfort of your home, office, or library thanks to MIMO, Musical Instrument Museums Online, a “consortium of some of Europe’s most important musical instrument museums” offering “the world’s largest freely accessible database for information on musical instruments held in public collections.”

The enormous online collection houses, virtually, tens of thousands of instruments from over two dozen regions around the globe. (There are 61,761 instruments in total.) Find an Italian Basse de Viole (above) from 1547 or an ornate Egyptian darabukka (below). And, of course, plenty of iconic—and rare—electric guitars and basses.

You can search instruments by maker, country, city, or continent, time period, museum, and type. (Wind, Percussion, Stringed, Zithers, Rattles, Bells, Lamellaphones, etc….) Researchers may encounter a few language hurdles—MIMO’s about page mentions “searching in six different languages,” and the site actually lists 11 language categories in tabs at the top. But users may still need to plug pages into Google translate unless they read French or German or some of the other languages in which descriptions have been written. Refreshingly consistent, the photographs of each instrument conform to a standard set by the consortium that provides “detailed guidelines on how to set up a repository to enable the harvesting of digital content.”

But enough about the site functions, what about the sounds? Well, in a physical museum, you wouldn’t expect to take a three-hundred-year-old flute out of its case and hear it played. Just so, most of the instruments here can be seen and not heard, but the site does have over 400 sound files, including the enchanting recording of Symphonion Eroica 38a (above), as played on a mechanical clock from 1900.

As you discover instruments you never knew existed—such as the theramin-like Croix Sonore (Sonorus Cross), created by Russian composer Nicolas Obukhov between 1926 and 1934—you can undertake your own research to find sample recordings online, such as “The Third and Last Testament,” below, Obukhov’s composition for 5 voices, organ, 2 pianos, orchestra, and croix sonore. Obukhov’s experiments with instruments of his own invention prompted his experiments in 12-tone composition, in which, he declared, “I forbid myself any repetition.” Just one example among many thousands demonstrating how instrument design forms the basis of a wildly proliferating variety of musical expressions that can start to seem endless after a while.

via @dark_shark

Related Content:

Watch a Musician Improvise on a 500-Year-Old Music Instrument, The Carillon

Musician Plays the Last Stradivarius Guitar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

Soviet Inventor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Early Electronic Instrument That Could Be Played Without Being Touched (1954)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Ornate Tapestries from the Age of Louis XIV Were Made (and Are Still Made Today)

“Time is the warp and matter the weft of the woven texture of beauty in space, and death is the hurling shuttle.”

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

For the uninitiated, the warp are the plain vertical threads of a weaving or tapestry, through which the colorful, horizontal weft threads are passed, over and under, on wooden needle-shaped bobbins (or shuttles).

As Beatrice Grisol, Head Weaver at Paris’ venerable Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins remarks, in The Art of Making a Tapestry, above, weavers must possess a love of drawing and an abundance of imagination in order to translate an artist’s vision using silken or woolen threads.

21st century designs are more contemporary, and dying equipment more precise, but Les Gobelins’s weavers’ process remains remarkably unchanged since the days of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

As in the 17th-century, giant looms are strung with white warp threads, in readiness for the threads expert dyers have colored according to the artist’s palette.

The colored weft threads are stored on spools, and eventually portioned out onto the bobbins, which dangle from the backside of the tapestry, as the weaver works her magic, constantly checking her progress in a mirror reflecting both the project's front side and a print of the original design.

It’s worth noting that the pronouns here are exclusively feminine. The lavish tapestries decorating Louis XIV’s court hinted at years of unsung labor by highly skilled craftswomen. Tapestries were the ne plus ultra of princely status, a testament to their owner’s erudition and taste. Louis XIV amassed some 2,650 pieces.

That’s a lot of bobbins, and a lot of hard-working female weavers.

Witness the transformation from artist Charles Le Brun’s 1664 study for the figure who would become the seated youth in The Entry of Alexander into Babylon

…to the fully realized oil on canvas rendering from 1690…

…to its incarnation as a tapestry in the Sun King’s court:

Speeding ahead to the 21st-century, Les Gobelins appears to rival Brooklyn’s Etsy flagship as a pleasantly appointed, well lit, and highly respected Temple of Craft.

View some of the highlights of the Getty Museum’s 2016 exhibition Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV here.

Or grab your heddles and plan an in-person visit to La Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins here.

Related Content:

Watch the Bayeux Tapestry Come to Life in a Short Animated Film

How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

Artistic Maps of Pakistan & India Show the Embroidery Techniques of Their Different Regions

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

More in this category... »