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.
This year’s STASH Flash session featured a whopping fourteen speakers, divided by subject into three groups. To do them all justice is almost impossible — it was really a fantastic session! — but here is my best attempt.
True to the theme of the annual meeting, the first set of talks focused on storage solutions for emergencies, beginning with Kelly O’Neill who presented on a mobile storage rack for paintings. As conservators at ArtCare, Miami, O’Neil and her colleagues must be prepared for severe weather. With this in mind, they worked with a carpenter to design a moveable rack made of marine plywood and reinforced PVC piping, with vinyl flooring and large wheels. A sailmaker was commissioned to create a custom cover with zippered sides and button snaps at the base, using Sunbrella cloth. The completed rack measured 105” x 114”, with the depth ranging from 43 to 93”; this was dictated by the space available in the studio.
Nichole Doub from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory suggested folding frame tanks (such as those sold by Husky) as storage for waterlogged wooden objects. She also recommended the use of tank liners (Flexiliner has a chemist on staff who can advise in the case of solvent use) as well as above-ground swimming pools, which can be hooked up to the conservation lab’s own filters.
Ashley McGrew from Stanford University recommended the use of nylon mesh and webbing fixed with fast release clips to create user-friendly, flexible, and affordable restraints to protect objects during earthquakes.
The next group of presenters discussed solutions that were large in scale and scope, beginning with Alicia Ghadban, who discussed the implementation of the RE-ORG methodology at a workshop at the WuHou Shrine Museum in China. The workshop focused on a storage room on the third floor, where objects were stored on the floor, limiting access. During the reorganization, most objects were removed from the room, allowing the installation of compact shelving. Materials were reused wherever possible, and objects were housed by size and type. Additional information about RE-ORG is available here.
Gretchen Anderson from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History followed with a way to protect type collections for archeology: she made a lid with a window in it using archival board and polyester film, protecting objects from dust while allowing them to remain visible. Meanwhile, her colleague, Leslie Haines, suggested an alternative to plastic sheeting for building dust covers for large objects: they now use Tyvek, which is draped over a support made of PVC piping. The support is basically a cube made of piping (the bottom framework is important for stability) and can incorporate a Coroplast panel on top to protect the object from water. Cotton ties can be sewn to the Tyvek to help hold it closed, and images of the object can be fixed to the exterior for easy identification.
Erika Range then discussed a recent survey at the Canadian Museum of Nature that developed guidelines and decision trees to use in identifying appropriate labeling materials for use in natural history collections. I was hoping these would be available online, but could not find them; hopefully they will be made available to the wider conservation community soon.
The last segment of the session dealt with multipurpose solutions, beginning with Sanchita Balachandran of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, who presented on the rehousing of small robust archeological objects to facilitate their safe use in classrooms. She and her colleagues developed a repeatable, modular, searchable, and useable solution that could be implemented by student workers. Details on the solution are available here .
Emily Wroczynski followed with a presentation on creating clamshell boxes for oyster shells with rare earth magnet closures. Then, Kesha Talbert described the creation of mounts for the display and storage of handheld fans at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. These custom mounts were made with matboard covered with suede polyethylene, and step by step instructions are available here.
Stephanie Gowler described the problems inherent in displaying and storing items from the archive of performance artist Charlotte Moorman. Mounts needed to be almost invisible, which Gowler and her colleagues achieved by the use of Tycore and Volara panels with Ethafoam and Volara supports. Objects were sewn onto the panels with monofilament and linen thread, and the whole was housed in custom boxes from Talas. Quilts of Hollytex and polyester batting were used to minimize vibration. A great blog-post detailing the process is available here.
The session came to a close with two presentations on the housing of (relatively) flat materials. William Bennett, from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, presented on his creation of a custom pieced housing for a fragile early gelatin print using a magnetic overmat that allowed the photograph to be easily removed if necessary. Liz Peirce’s presentation on the rehousing of a collection of thin wood samples in four-flap boxes that are themselves housed in a clamshell box.
For further information, you can access the abstracts of all the presenters here. Presentations will also be posted on the STASH site.