39th Annual Meeting – OSG Morning Session, June 2, “The January 12, 2010 Earthquake in Haiti: Building a Conservation Foundation from the Ground Up” by Stephanie Hornbeck

Stephanie Hornbeck, Chief Conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Project (CRP), presented a paper on the conservation recovery efforts in Haiti in response to the January 12, 2010 earthquake. There was much information in the paper, requiring that the presentation keep a fast pace throughout. The slideshow itself primarily consisted of photographs of the work areas, conservation projects, and the many people who have been involved in the CRP. Stephanie Hornbeck prefaced the presentation by saying that many of the aspects of the Smithsonian Haitian response apply to any issue in conservation so that the impact of the project and resulting paper could extend beyond emergency response situations.

The cultural devastation response was dependant on several other factors, including the immediate human recovery response, the pillaging of art and objects, and salvage efforts. The severity of destruction and the restrictions on any recovery efforts based on logistics mandated that priorities be established, a task dependent on the Haitian officials. From this, it was determined that three sites in Port-au-Prince should receive immediate attention: the National Palace (see image below), the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Brief Look at the Holy Trinity Cathedral), and the Musée Nader (see also: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703837004575013022647688144.html). These three sites exemplify the cultural heritage of Haiti, both in their construction and in the works therein contained. Here, Stephanie Hornbeck briefly elaborated on the city in an art historical context, touching on the pre-colonial traditions, the effects of European contact, and the establishment of Port-au-Prince as the ‘Centre d’Art.’ It is this history and culture that the CRP was so interested in recovering and preserving to the best of their abilities. The original team of professionals involved in the efforts has since expanded, but some of the key names include Richard Kurin (Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture), Corine Wegener, and Olsen Jean Julien (project manager and minister of culture). The AIC joined the partnership, facilitating the sending of several volunteers throughout the course of the project, running May 2010 to November 2011.

According to the Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National (ISPAN), over 50,000 works of art were damaged as a result of the earthquake. All of the conservation efforts must be undertaken in Haiti, a consequence of the colonial history of the country. The weight of this falls fully on the CRP; however, they must operate out of the central storage area and the availability of materials is severely limited. Equally challenging is that no one in Haiti was previously qualified in conservation. Thus, a large portion of the CRP has been training individuals in the practice so that educated efforts may continue following the project’s close. In 2010 the chief conservator was chosen, Stephanie Hornbeck having been selected. She established the project’s plan, which was to follow a course similar to: stocking, assessing, methods, oversight, stabilization, training, and treating works of art of a high cultural value. By first identifying colleagues and then training, the project would then be best equipped to respond.

At this point in the presentation, several examples of the damage were provided as well as a discussion of the ensuing challenges. These were as follows:

  1. The issue of education. Specifically, Stephanie Hornbeck said that many of the Haitians involved were expecting complete restoration and that the concepts of stabilization, prioritization, and the intensity of the time commitment were difficult to communicate.
  2. The absence of records and/or photos, as well as complete inventories.
  3. The environment, including the lack of screens, the instability of electricity, and the tropical climate.
  4. Antiquated restoration materials and methods.
  5. The necessity of importing 100% of the material supply.
  6. Recovery efforts could not begin until five months following the earthquake.

Attempting to respond to these challenges as best as they could, the CRP developed a local infrastructure consisting of both CRP staff as well as local associates. In order to achieve this, an ICCROM course was held during August and September of 2010. Professionals with an academic background in art or chemistry were selected for participation, resulting in twenty-four Haitian managers studying painting, object, and paper conservation. The next course will provide an introduction to collection databases. From here it is hoped that the individuals may continue on to received graduate training in conservation and maintain the execution of the practice in Haiti.

Developing the local infrastructure comprised only part of the ‘identifying colleagues’ task. The AIC volunteer conservators were another essential component, as well as the three contract conservators hired by the project. Over the course of the project to date, over thirty-two people have volunteered their time at an estimated value of $115,000. Aside from practicing conservators and assistants, another category of colleague needed was in supply acquisition. Approximately $45,000 worth of supplies were purchased and hand carried by various participants to Haiti. As none of the supplies could be purchased in Haiti, this was an essential step. The supply list itself has continued to develop throughout the course of the CRP as various conservators and participants help to refine it.

Following ‘training,’ the task of adequately responding became the primary focus. It was immediately obvious that security was a big issue. As just one example, many of the stained glass elements had already been stolen from the National Cathedral. Thus, the team made a red-list of high priority items in September 2010. Though nine months since the original earthquake, time was of the essence as items continued to be stolen. The red-list communicated the objects that were at the greatest risk in terms of security and each was processed by priority according to the individual circumstances. In terms of the manner in which work has been approached, it is a three-part process. First, condition assessments must be completed so as to provide the data necessary for future work. Next, interventions occur in order to improve the current housing and storage environments in order to stabilize the works in question. Finally, the treatments occur, though the emphasis continues to be placed on stabilization above all else. One of the most common treatments being performed is the removal/treatment of mold and dirt accretions. Items of the highest cultural value have received the highest level of conservation treatment; however, the process is highly time consuming and limits the amount of work that can be done in other areas.

At this point, Stephanie Hornbeck provided specifics as to the processing and treatments that have occurred at the sites of the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Centre d’Art. At Holy Trinity, there was a large mural cycle originally consisting of fourteen murals, though now only three remain. With two conservators and four assistants, the remaining murals were consolidated and successfully effaced and stored. They are now waiting for the cathedral to be rebuilt, at which point the murals will be reinstalled. At the Centre d’Art, individual works were recovered within the first month following the earthquake; however, the manner of recovery was not ideal. No inventory could be completed during the process based on time constraints and the lack of an inventory from which to base their identifications. Also, storage was difficult in the time of great turmoil so two large, metal containers had to be used to hold everything that could be recovered, which ended up being approximately 5,000 pieces. Once the metal containers were filled, they were guarded twenty-four hours a day; however, they also had to remain on the street from January until August, reaching approximately 80% rh. At this point, the works are being processed methodologically and being stored in more suitable means while they await any treatment.

From these experiences and others, two case studies are currently planned. One would focus on looking at an on-site recovery effort where bulldozers and shovels were used to help look for art, resulting in the recovery of approximately one hundred and fifty pieces. The second case study will examine the storage of the works in the metal container. These pieces underwent triage from the 3rd – 6th of September, where it was discovered that mold was the primary side effect of the storage, requiring that the processors where personal protective equipment.

To date, the CRP has stabilized over 5,000 works of art while the process has cost approximately $1.5 million. The team has greatly grown; however, they still need materials, funding, and assistance in training qualified associates. It is also becoming pressing that Haiti determine if they can build a local core with which to continue the preservation efforts. The CRP is currently a finalist for a global ambassador’s grant, which would provide the much needed funding if it is selected. Following the presentation, one question was asked regarding the possibility of training in the use of alternative, local materials and methods of conservation. Stephanie Hornbeck responded by saying that it really was not possible to use any local material of any sort as nothing as of close enough quality but that they are currently working on obtaining a local supplier of conservation-grade material.


See Also: http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/smithsonian-develops-haitian-cultural-recovery-project