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Funerary mask
A funerary mask from ancient Egypt is among the artifacts from the now-destroyed Museu documented in digital 3-D models. (UFRJ National Museum via Sketchfab)

One of the greatest tragedies in the museum world transpired over the weekend when fire broke out at Brazil’s Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, touching off a mad scramble to save physical and virtual treasures.

Many of the 200-year-old natural history museum’s 20 million artifacts have been destroyed, including irreplaceable fossils and specimens. One heartbreaking video sweeps around a ruined gallery where only a monumental meteorite survived unscathed.

Museum workers managed to save some artifacts from the blaze, and other items survived because they were on loan to institutions elsewhere. But for many of the pieces, the only hope is to build a digital archive containing videos and photos of the museum’s collection.

Wikipedia is encouraging folks to upload pictures from the museum to its Wikimedia Commons repository.

Closer to home, students at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro are heading up their own crowdsourcing effort,. They’re even soliciting selfies from past visits.

O Globo says imagery can be sent to these email addresses: thg.museo@gmail.com, lusantosmuseo@gmail.com, isabeladfrreitas@gmail.com.

“Thousands of images have already been uploaded,” the newspaper reports.

Brazilian news outlets are also reporting that National Geographic, UNESCO and the French government have offered support for restoring the museum and reconstituting its collection.

Meanwhile, Sketchfab’s 3-D modeling community is collecting its own store of digital models related to the museum and its artifacts. The files range from a reconstruction of the museum’s exterior to an ancient Egyptian statuette and funerary mask.

“It is hopeful that more objects may have also been captured, and that they may prove useful in at least the digital restoration of the museum’s collection,” Thomas Flynn, cultural heritage lead at Sketchfab, told GeekWire in an email.

To get more of a sense of the museum’s digital remnants, check out these tweets:

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