Brazilian museum destroyed by fire lives on through Google

Google said it had been working with the National Museum of Brazil since 2016 to help bring its 20 million artifacts online.
Image: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro
Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, on Sept. 2, 2018.Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

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By Alyssa Newcomb

Google is helping Brazil’s National Museum reopen its doors online through a virtual exhibition, three months after a fire destroyed millions of priceless artifacts.

The 200-year-old National Museum, which was located in Rio de Janeiro, began working with Google two years ago on a project to digitize its 20 million artifacts. Little did both parties know how important that digital archive would be after a fire leveled the museum on Sept. 2.

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Google’s street view technology now allows people anywhere in the world to step — virtually — inside the museum for a tour, where they can see some of its most famous artifacts that were digitally memorialized before the blaze.

Those exhibits include Egyptian mummies, an 11,500-year-old skull named Luzia, which is believed to be the oldest discovered in the Americas, and a meteorite made of iron and nickel that had been on display at the museum since 1888.

“Advances in technology — like high-resolution photography, photogrammetry, 3D laser scanning, and virtual and augmented reality — have not only introduced new forms of art, but help us preserve the world's most precious heritage,” Chance Coughenour, a program manager for Google Arts & Culture, said in a blog post. “Even though images cannot replace what has been lost, they offer us a way to remember.”

The fire was called a “tragedy” and a ”lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” While an official cause has not been released, protesters gathered days after the blaze and pointed the blame at the Brazilian government for funding cuts and years of neglect.

The full damage from the fire is still being assessed. However, it has been reported that 92.5 percent of the 20 million artifacts were destroyed in the blaze. Alexander Kellner, director of the museum, said in an open letter that while the museum and the artifacts are gone, his goal is to continue the work of the institution’s researchers.

Want to see what it was like to step inside the National Museum? Take a guided tour on Google’s Arts & Culture website or download the iOS or Android apps.