British Columbia

Priceless Pacific Northwest artifacts believed lost in Brazil's devastating museum fire

A curator from the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology says priceless Pacific Northwest artifacts may be among the items lost in the fire that destroyed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sunday.

One official estimates 90 per cent of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro's collection is lost

One of the Pacific Northwest items potentially lost in the huge fire that engulfed Brazil's National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 2, 2018 is this slat-and-cord armour from the 1700s from the Aleutian Islands. (Museum of Anthropology/UBC)

A curator from the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology says priceless Pacific Northwest artifacts may be among the items lost in the fire that destroyed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sunday.

Fire engulfed the 200-year-old museum around 7:30 p.m. local time on Sept. 2. The institution, which was Latin America's largest collection of historical and scientific artifacts and precious heritage items from around the world, was closed to the public at the time and there were no reports of injuries. 

But the extent of damage to the museum's collection could be catastrophic. One official told a Brazilian news outlet that as much as 90 per cent of the museum's collection may have been destroyed.

Marina Silva, a candidate in Brazil's upcoming presidential election, tweeted the loss was equivalent to "a lobotomy in Brazilian memory."

An aerial view of the National Museum of Brazil after a fire burnt it in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Karen Duffek, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology, says the Brazilian museum had a small but significant collection of items — about 42 in total — from the area between Northern California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

"It's such a shock. You don't expect to hear such a thing. It's such a sudden and massive destruction," Duffek said. 

One of the Museum of Anthropology's curators, Nuno Porto, had been working with the Brazilian museum on a different project when he came across the Pacific Northwest collection.

Collection got to museum indirectly

Most of the items, Duffek said, got to Brazil indirectly. 

For example, a set of armour from Alaskan Tlingit territory dating back to the 1700s was taken by Russian collectors and later given to the Portuguese royal family as a gift to solidify a relationship between Russia and Portugal around 1812. Because Brazil was part of the Portuguese kingdom, the piece eventually ended up in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.

Another angle of the Tlingit slat-and-cord armour from the 1700s. Many of the Pacific Northwest Coast artifacts arrived at the Brazillian museum indirectly. (Museum of Anthropology/UBC)

That was typical for many items from the Pacific Northwest, Duffek said, where many items were lost "through the whole history of colonization."

"A lot [of cultural artifacts] were removed and taken from all of the peoples of the coast," she said.

"And so the pieces that do remain … the majority of them [are] dispersed around the world in sometimes obscure collections that people don't really know about." 

Pacific Northwest collection digitized

There is one small, silver lining. 

When Porto found the collection of Pacific Northwest items, he worked with the National Museum to digitize the collection. The items were photographed and catalogued and made available on an online database to Indigenous communities and scholars. 

This ladle, made out of a big mountain sheep horn, is from Haida Gwaii and was at the museum in Brazil. (Museum of Anthropology/UBC)

"It was a way of making these pieces accessible to the descendants of the communities that they came from as well as scholars around the world," Duffek said.

"We realize now [that was] a pretty fortunate thing that happened because I don't know if their collection otherwise has been digitized at all or shared in this kind of way."

Still, Duffek said, the potential loss of such items — and everything else in the museum's collection — is devastating. 

"It's also kind of a lesson to the importance of what is often kind of a boring aspect of heritage work, which is maintaining the infrastructure. It's costly [and] it's not what you really see from the front of house, but it's really essential."

With files from Megan Batchelor