The blaze that tore through Brazil’s National Museum Sunday destroyed an estimated 20 million artifacts—with some of them originally coming from the West Coast.
Some of the irreplaceable pieces in the Rio museum included rare Andean mummies, unique dinosaur fossils, relics from ancient Egypt and “extremely rare” Indigenous armour from Alaska as well as artifacts from across B.C, according to one B.C. researcher.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Karen Duffek, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. This wooden armour from the Tlingit nation was made of painted wood slats and twine and left what is now Alaska in 1812. The wooden armour from the Tlingit nation was made of painted wood slats and twine and left what is now Alaska in 1812. The Tlingit nation had sent the piece to the Portuguese royal family. Duffek described the artifact as the“northwest coast version of samurai armour” which showcased both theidentity and craftsmanship of the warrior.
The Tlingit territory spans across the Pacific Northwest coast.
Similar armour artifacts are in Spanish and British museumsbut “there’s no equivalent (for some of the relics) in any Canadian collection.”
“They’re also really important they represent how all of northwest coastart has circulated around the world, even at such an early time,” she said. “Those kinds of things are so important to contemporary generations of indigenous people who are studying those things from precolonial times.”
She added that UBC worked closely with Rio’s museum in analyzing the artifacts and helped the former in building a “digital portal” for art collections around the world that includedpieces from the northwest coast.
“At least there’s something that remains," she said adding that the digital record of some of the artifacts is a bit of a silver lining. How did B.C. pieces end up around the world?
Other pieces incinerated by the fire included carved bowls, detailed boxes and a sheep-horn ladle from the Haida people whose territory spans across B.C. and into Alaska.
The Museum of Anthropology has a similar ladle but it wasn’t as intricate as the one that was destroyed, Duffek said. The pieces ended up in Rio because they were sent all over the world as part of exchanges, including ones between the Berlin Museum and Rio that took place during the 1870s and 1880s.
Officials have said that much of Latin America’s largest collection of historic and scientific artifacts might be lost after Sunday’s fire. Some researchers in Rio actually attempted to rush into the museum during the fire and save thousands of pieces, but the flames proved too much to save more.
Rio’s museum will take years to rebuild but Duffek said the MOA is ready to help and provide artifacts on loan to showcase the Pacific region’s cultural heritage.
In that intense heat, even fossils and stonework can disintegrate. Initial investigation into the fire found that the building had no fire suppression, no sprinkler systemandwas rarely ever maintained . The fire hydrants close by weren’t able to be pumped so firefighters had to take water from a nearby lake.
"To maintain the infrastructure of a museum like this is absolutely vital and it’s not the most upfront, sexy thing that you can invest money in but it’s crucial," Duffek warned.
Fires and other disasters aren’t unheard of at Canadian institutions—in 1890, a fire destroyed almost 33,000 books in the University of Toronto’s collection. Since then, curators have taken precautions.
At the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, a disaster preparedness plan is in place to minimize damage to its valuable collection in case of a fire or water damage.Earlier this summer, a server crash wiped out […]
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