CAN A DE­STROYED MU­SEUM BE RECRE­ATED DIG­I­TALLY?

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - FEATURES / APPRECIATION - By Gamini Ak­mee­m­ana (Source: The Smith­so­nian)

Re­searchers who had based a life time of work on the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion now find them­selves lost. But, as cu­ra­tor Deb­ora Pires put it: “The brains didn’t burn. We are work­ing with a pos­i­tive agenda.”

Much of the dam­age is ir­re­versible, and only a frac­tion of the de­stroyed col­lec­tion of 20 mil­lion arte­facts can be re­cov­ered

The mu­seum’s herbar­ium, main li­brary and parts of the ver­te­brate se­lec­tion sur­vived as they were housed in a sep­a­rate build­ing

In Septem­ber last year, Brazil’s 200-year­sold Na­tional Mu­seum based in Rio de Janeiro was burnt down to the ground. The po­lice had to use tear gas and ba­tons to hold back out­raged pro­test­ers reel­ing from the shock. The un­der­funded mu­seum lacked a sprin­kler sys­tem, and the two near­est fire hy­drants failed to work when fire fight­ers ar­rived.

The mu­seum hadn’t re­ceived its full an­nual bud­get of US$ 128,000 since 2014. In 2018, it re­ceived a pal­try US$ 13,000. The year be­fore, the cu­ra­tors were so short of cash they had to crowd fund to re­pair dam­age caused by ter­mites to an ex­hi­bi­tion hall.

The mu­seum’s Vice Di­rec­tor Luis Fer­nando Duarte, who un­plugged all the elec­tri­cal items in his of­fice be­fore leav­ing work each day to min­i­mize any risk of fire, said that even a quar­ter of the money bud­geted for a sin­gle 2014 World Cup sta­dium would have been to make this mu­seum safe and re­splen­dent. The city of Rio spent US$ 15 bil­lion on the Cup and US$ 13.1 bil­lion on the 2016 Olympics.

Much of the dam­age is ir­re­versible, and only a frac­tion of the de­stroyed col­lec­tion of 20 mil­lion arte­facts can be re­cov­ered. The mu­seum’s herbar­ium, main li­brary and parts of the ver­te­brate se­lec­tion sur­vived as they were housed in a sep­a­rate build­ing.

Re­searchers were de­lighted to re­cover Luzia, the old­est hu­man fos­sil in the Amer­i­cas, from the rub­ble. A group of mu­seum staff, tech­ni­cians and stu­dents were able to res­cue a small num­ber of arte­facts from the burn­ing build­ing. The Ben­dego me­te­orite, a 5.8 ton space rock dis­cov­ered in 1784, and a se­ries of an­cient Jew­ish To­rah scrolls, too, sur­vived.

The di­rec­tors of twelve im­por­tant nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums in the world have is­sued a joint state­ment promis­ing to sup­port the Brazil­ians in the com­ing “weeks, months and years.”

Re­searchers who had based a life time of work on the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion now find them­selves lost. But, as cu­ra­tor Deb­ora Pires put it: “The brains didn’t burn. We are work­ing with a pos­i­tive agenda.” An­thro­pol­o­gist An­to­nio Car­los de Souza Lima said that the loss of 38 years of re­search done by him on indige­nous cul­tures is “very, very, small” com­pared to what Brazil­ians have lost as a coun­try and in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity. He added that while it would be easy to yield to de­pres­sion, he and his col­leagues would go on fight­ing for their coun­try’s fu­ture in­stead.

A group of stu­dents from the Univer­sity of Rio de Janeiro have put out a global re­quest for pho­to­graphs and video clips of the mu­seum and its col­lec­tion. They have al­ready re­ceived thou­sands of con­tri­bu­tions from which they hope to con­struct a “vir­tual mu­seum or mem­ory space of some sort.”

Wikipedia posted a sim­i­lar Twit­ter an­nounce­ment call­ing for users to up­load their per­sonal snap­shots of the mu­seum to Wiki­me­dia Com­mons, its open ac­cess re­pos­i­tory of images.

The mu­seum al­ready has dig­i­tal files of sev­eral im­por­tant arte­facts, in­clud­ing fos­sils, Egyp­tian mum­mies, and Graeco-ro­man arte­facts taken be­fore the fire.

This isn’t the first time a mu­seum has been af­fected by ac­ci­dent or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art caught fire in 1958 but most of the col­lec­tion wasn’t dam­aged. Rot­ter­dam’s Old Mas­ters and mod­ern Euro­pean art gallery (the Mu­seum Moi­j­mans Van Be­unin­gen) was dam­aged by five floods over the past 14 years and is cur­rently con­struct­ing an es­ti­mated $70 mil­lion flood-proof struc­ture. In 2016, fire de­stroyed In­dia’s Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in New Delhi. In 2015, the Mu­seum of the Por­tuguese Lan­guage in Sao Paolo, Brazil, too, was de­stroyed by fire.

Eleanor Cum­mings of the Pop­u­lar Sci­ence Mag­a­zine says it isn’t just nat­u­ral dis­as­ters which threaten mu­se­ums. “Mu­seum sci­ence is a race against time,” she wrote, “and bud­get cuts, staff re­duc­tions, and de­clin­ing vis­i­ta­tion in coun­tries around the world, the United States, in­cluded, aren’t mak­ing any­one’s job any eas­ier.”

A frac­tion of the mu­seum’s huge col­lec­tion has been re­cov­ered from the rub­ble

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