In September, a fire ripped through Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum, destroying more than 90% of its collection of 20 million scientific and historical items, including statues, fossils, and irreplaceable artifacts. Both the museum and its contents seemed gone for good.
Now, however, that’s not quite true. Starting this week, digital tourists can “walk” through the collections via an impressively rendered digital “museum” produced by Google Arts & Culture, and powered by Museum View. (It uses the same interface as Google Street View.) Stepping through its parquet-floored hallways, you can see such treasures as the oldest human skeleton in the Americas, the Bendegó meteorite, and an unparalleled collection of ancient Brazilian ceramics. Look up at the bones of a looming dino skeleton, or linger by indigenous masks and masterworks.
The collaboration predates the tragedy. Google had begun working with the museum in 2016 to create the digital experience, using a combination of “high-resolution photography, photogrammetry, 3D laser scanning, and virtual and augmented reality,” writes program manager Chance Coughenour in a recent blog post. “Even though images cannot replace what has been lost, they offer us a way to remember.”
Yes, it’s not as good as the real thing. But it’s better than nothing—and it’s an interim measure. The Brazilian government has announced plans to restore the museum itself over the next few years, with a budget of R$10 million (around US$2.6 million) coming out of the country’s emergency funds. Until the project is complete, however, it’s cheering to know that the museum has a temporary home online, as well as in the hearts and minds of its patrons and visitors.