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Digital records mean ancient northwest coast Indigenous art ’survives’ blaze at Brazil museum

Centuries-old artifacts from the Pacific northwest coast are among items lost in the recent fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil, but a museum curator in Vancouver says the North American works will live on through digitization.

Karen Duffek, a curator with the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, says about 40 northwest coast items, including a more than 300-year-old piece of Tlingit armour from Alaska, burned in Sunday’s blaze.

But Duffek says another curator at the university, working with the Brazil museum, had managed to digitize 42 pieces, adding photos and descriptions to what Duffek describes as a digital portal that gives researchers around the globe access to northwest coast art.

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The Tlingit armour dates back to the 1700s and was sent as a gift to the Portuguese royal family before finding its way to the museum in Rio de Janeiro, and Duffek says destruction of the extremely rare item is a “huge loss.”

She calls the Brazil fire “shocking,” adding it may motivate museums to step up the time-consuming process of digitization, something the Museum of Anthropology has been working on since about 2007.

The National Museum of Brazil is still tallying its losses but estimates some of the 20 million artifacts that are likely destroyed include rare Andean mummies, relics from ancient Egypt and unique dinosaur fossils.

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