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

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