What the Destruction of the National Historical Museum of Rio de Janeiro Says About the Actual State of Museums.

Between those shutting down, those opening with great fanfare and the ones becoming the new local heroes, the museum industry moves at three speeds.

In the last decade, we have seen museums closing down (in 2016, the UK Museums Association reported that “44 museums had closed since 2010 and that further closures were inevitable”), deaccessioning part of its collection to repay its debts, asking for help after huge funding cuts or even seeing museum directors resigning facing unbearable financial crisis.

Last week, the National Museum of Brazil which is the biggest natural history museum of Latin America has been consumed by fire with its archive of 20 million items endangering the cultural identity of this country and the history of our species. The loss of this Brazilian national heritage was predictable but we let it go.

While this is happening, the world of museums is racing to open new museums, attracting all the attention and becoming mega-stars. We saw more museums opening between 2000 and 2014 than in the previous two centuries and more than 70% of the museums are less than 40 years. Only on a national scale, the Pinacoteca of Sao Paulo received a great support and focus last year with its project with IBM and the Museum of Tomorrow attracts most of the attention and fundings since its opening. Within the last 20 years, we lost the museum scarcity which made museums so unique, valuable for all and exciting to visit.

With the digital revolution and the global access to content, the explosion of the museum industry that follows and the rise of media coverage, museums had to become progressive and relevant in today’s society by engaging in the current conversations.

They started to be accountable to communities and act as service providers instead of only showcasing the past. Museums became quickly the new heroes of our society. While species extinct and cultures disappear into a global mashup-up identity, museums are the archive of our planet where we can learn and understand from what we are today. But they also become activists, ready to stand up for the right of the people and the future of our planet. They are the first to act to save the environment, to defy authorities, to give a place and a voice to those who do not have one. They work hard towards a better mental health of humans. They connect visitors and offer moments to improve mindfulness and happiness. Museums are even giving new skills to people to find jobs or provide water for the local communities. They value the ordinary objects and the stories and emotions of people to draw our History.

If we assess all this properly and understand that our society lives in an era of transformation and fear of the future, we should understand the fundamental role of museums for Humankind.

I always valued the museum awareness campaigns launched by the UK Museum Associations but believe this should go further than in the UK. We see small operations poping-up towards this direction but the museum issue should be as important as the environmental crisis we live in. For their historical, educational, creative and social role, Museums should become at the heart of our civilization like Nature starts to become essential in our species evolution.

The guidance of cultural institutions towards the global digitalization of our heritage is fundamental to decentralized the safety of our heritage. Reading that “ we lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore” (source) was heartbreaking and I am sure this is just one example of what we lost among dozens.

We are endangering our own cultural heritage days after days.

Extreme time always brings great community engagement. Brazilians started a crowdsourcing campaign to gather all the pictures taken by visitors in order to reconstitute in 3D part of the collection and Wikipedia launched the same type of campaign to preserve memories from the museum. In the last years, we have seen an increase in very innovative and qualitative projects like RecoVr Mossul appearing after the destruction of Syria and Iraq cultural heritage sites. We know that people are willing to help, be creative, support, commit but we have to show them that we now live in one of these extreme time. Projects like the exceptional work done by Iconem’s passionate and dedicated team to digitally preserved endangered heritage sites or the Open Heritage by Google in collaboration with Cyark should be named of global interest.

The ReACH initiative, spearheaded by the Victoria & Albert Museum and launched at UNESCO in May 2017, shows the value of collaborations between cultural institutions by creating an international movement towards the good use of digital reproductions. The group has been leading an unprecedented global consultation to explore how we could, collectively, better understand the challenges and opportunities for making, storing, sharing and using digital reproductions of works of art and cultural heritage in the 21st century. One of the main outcomes of this initiative is the ReACH Declaration signed by leading figures of the museum and heritage sector across the globe.

And of course, it’s always important to mention the two best examples of collection open access, which are, for me, the Rijksstudio by the Rijksmuseum and the SMK Open project of the National Gallery of Denmark (check their About page where they describe precisely why digitization and opening the collection are essential today). These two museums have been and are still actively spreading their vision and expertise through conferences and article, but also by advising other museums in their transformation.

In this newly-spread sharing economy we live in, the sense of community is fundamental. Skills-focused local or global networks have a huge value for museum professionals. It’s giving them places where they can share about their job, get feedback and advice, debate or collaborate. But the sharing economy applied to the museum industry could go way further. Let’s think about what museum could mutualize like tools and software, service providers, contacts, or even training and expertise like this group of seven Swedish museums which gathered to create the Sweden Digital Identities Program. This one-year program aims to give a platform for museums to find their digital identity through the creation of each museum of their value-driven digital ecosystem.

Let’s keep our eyes open as such events are always fertile ground for innovation and commitment!

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Diane Drubay

Diane Drubay

Founder of @wearemuseums. Co-founder of @alterhen. Arts & Culture for the Tezos ecosystem. Visual artist nudging for nature awareness.