Could Technology Be The Solution To Tragedy

This past September a massive fire engulfed the Museu Nacional (National Museum) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the largest museum in Latin America. It was a total loss destroying priceless artifacts and treasurers, both natural and man-made. It would have been on par with losing the Smithsonian in the US or the Louvre in Paris. While the artifacts have been lost, technology may help to at least preserve their memories.

The Museu Nacional

On the night of September 3 the museum, which was housed in the São Cristóvão Palace since 1892, went up in flames. It housed 20 million items in its collection, including Latin America’s largest anthropology and natural history collections which included Luzia, a 12,000 year old skull and the oldest human found in Latin America. While Luzia’s skull was mostly recovered as much as 90% of the collection were destroyed in the fire.

Whose Fault Was The Fire?

Blame for the fire abounded even while the building was still smoldering. The building was not well maintained and lacked both a sprinkler system and smoke detectors. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which manages the museum, was singled out for poor management and the firefighters that responded were called out for a lack of adequate training.

The government was also blamed for freezing investments in public facilities. Some also blame Brazil’s culture, which does not have much connection to its past owing to colonization from Europe by the Portugese as well as the importation of slaves from West Africa. While many public facilities were upgraded in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics the museum was not one of them. The true cause of the fire has not been determined yet.

Replace the Museum With Pictures

As firefighters sifted through the wreckage searching for anything that could be recovered a public cry went up to preserve the collection through photographs. A request was put out to send the university any pictures of the artifacts in the collection that visitors had taken and Wikipedia offered to host those pictures on its Wikimedia section.

Google had actually already been working on something like this even before the fire. They had been working to digitize the collection and in December they announced that the part of the collection that they had digitized would be made available to the public as a virtual tour. This tour uses the same technology as Google’s Street View and allows visitors to virtually walk through the museum. Could this be the future of museums?

Are Virtual Tours the Future of Museums

This is of course not the only museum in the world where a visitor can take a virtual tour and many of them are some of the finest museums in the world. This includes the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the British Museum in London and even the Vatican.

This allows someone who is a world away to visit the world’s most famous museums with none of the expense and hassle of getting there. While nothing will replace seeing an item or collection in person this opens the museum’s collection to the world. Who knew that this could also be a virtual insurance policy against disaster too?

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