In the aftermath of the major earthquake that struck the Port-au-Prince region of Haiti in 2010, the Smithsonian Institutional Haiti Cultural Recovery Project was formed in partnership with the government of Haiti. The partnership was established to assist local professionals in the recovery of their cultural heritage. The 2010 earthquake was the most destructive event in Haiti’s history and resulted in the collapse of museums and historic structures.
The project was launched in 2010 and continues to be highly successful. The efforts began by defining a plan for the partnership, both within the Haitian government and the cultural sector. Funding, provided from both public and private donors including AIC, exceeded three million dollars and was used in finding a facility that would house the 100,000 objects endangered as well as hiring a staff that worked to rehouse, document, and treat this collection.
The Cultural Recovery Center staff included local and international conservators, 54 international conservators and collection managers, and local assistants including 13 full time students. Ideal volunteers came with an open-minded attitude and willingness to help wherever needed.
Conservation priorities were established for the endangered collection, which included West and Central African tradition, Historic Haitian Art, and Contemporary Haitian Art. Some of the artifacts recovered include broken panels and paintings, crumpled and torn paper, broken sculptures, and built heritage in total collapse. Conservation and preservation professionals faced numerous challenges including working in a tropical climate, lack of written and photographic inventories, and a general absence of basic collections care practices. The country has faced decades long problems with discontinuous electricity and many museums didn’t have covered windows. The presenters emphasized that their goal was not to establish priorities within the collection, but to aid in stabilizing and treating the collection items that locals deemed a priority. This commendable attitude proved to be quite difficult at times, as many museums did not have their collections prioritized prior to the earthquake.
Some of the conservation activities included assessing and improving facilities, providing guidance and support during the stabilization of damaged collections, training volunteers and staff to process and stabilize a high volume of damaged works, and treating a selection of culturally important and badly damaged works. The treatment stage included the stabilization of 35,000 works from 20 institutions.
The presenters gave reasons for why stages of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project were successful or unsuccessful. Less successful situations arose when establishing an agreement with the National Bureau of Ethnology, negotiating with ISPAN for the construction of the conservation center on public property, and managing the transition from one government to another. In addition, the speakers stated that it was difficult to have the Haitian government to be proactive and take ownership of the project. Success was attributed to the core set of values shared between the six types of partners. When translated into the management of the situation, these principles lead to a mutually understanding, which ultimately lead to the success of the project.
Providing assistance in war-torn areas in Syria and Iraq is a complicated matter. The humanitarian crisis has resulted in protests in Syria against the government while a civil war led to the emergence of extremists groups, the most active threat being daesh (ISIS/ISIL). Collateral damage to the area has resulted in the militarization of archaeological sites and historic neighborhoods being obliterated. Organizations such as the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) are continually working on meeting the challenges of this cultural heritage crisis. Through diligent monitoring, CSI is able to assist the nations by documenting damage, promoting global awareness, and planning emergency and post-war responses.
LeaAnn Barnes Gordon gave an insightful presentation into the complications of providing international support to local residents and institutions. A highlight of Gordon’s presentation was showcasing CHI’s extensive digital mapping of over 7,800 cultural heritage sites. These maps help to assess the affects on cultural heritage by analyzing different types of damage as well as current and prospective threats. By utilizing satellite imagery, CHI can monitor changes over time in areas that have been damaged by military occupation or that have been illegally excavated. Information is compiled into reports using photographs and textual records of observations; some of these records are currently available online and others are being added regularly.
CHI is standardizing documents and terminology to avoid ambiguity during documentation (e.g. threats vs. disturbances). In the presentation, Gordon provided examples of types of documents utilized including field guide assessment forms, photo-documentation guides, and technical advice in Arabic to assist those currently living/working in Syria and Iraq. In addition, CHI is providing resources and funding for local institutions for efforts such as cleaning and removing debris and erecting temporary structures.
The presentation discussed ongoing CHI projects as well as general challenges faced when attempting to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones. Constant monitoring allows CHI to identify potential damages and share this information with conservation/preservation specialists in the area. These measures help prevent and decrease future damage to culturally rich sites and collections as well as helping to create standardized documents that can be used in other areas of conflict zones.
To learn more about CHI and the important work they are doing, please see: