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Why The Brazilian National Museum Fire Matters

The story of the devastating fire this week at the National Museum of Brazil made me unexplainably sad. Yet on three different trips to Brazil, I never went there. So why am I so upset about it?

Experts estimate nearly 20 million artifacts may have been lost. Even though many museums have ways to protect their collections, this loss isn’t really about the collection shown to the public. Instead, it is about the millions of artifacts which are studied by experts to learn from our history. Some have been digitized, but most simply sit on shelves. A recent study termed this material “dark data” – the information is there in the archives, but is still inaccessible.

What if this dark data held the key to understanding what happened to the dinosaurs (and how to prevent the same thing from happening to us)? What if a biological sample could have helped researchers find a cure for cancer? It’s not the missed chance to see these lost artifacts on display which made me sad.

What made me sad was the undiscovered insights which could have made our lives better that we will now never know.

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