Crash Courses Prepare Art Conservators for Catastrophic Disasters

Smithsonian experts train a brave band of conservators in northern Iraq to brace buildings and rescue artifacts in a hurry

The statue of Abu Bint Deimun, from third century B.C. Hatra, Iraq. A global network of preservationists are teaming up to protect the world’s antiquities. DeAgostini / Getty Images

In the Kurdish city of Erbil, in a classroom on a nondescript street beneath the historic Citadel, 14 students sit in a semicircle around a teacher who has a mop of graying hair. The teacher is Alaa El-Habashi, a Cairo-based consultant in architecture and cultural heritage conservation. The students are men and women of all ages, mostly junior- and mid-level employees of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. The lesson is about how to prevent buildings from falling down, or, short of that, how to ensure that they fall in the right way. “Let’s pretend this room has a domed ceiling,” says El-Habashi. Everyone in the room looks up. “If you remove the dome, the building collapses.”

In the back of the room stands a no-nonsense woman wearing large glasses who helped bring these people together—Corine Wegener, the Smithsonian Institution’s cultural heritage protection officer. She organized this monthlong course in crisis preservation in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. This week is about stabilizing immovable heritage, such as buildings and museums; last week focused on inventorying and transporting collections in a hurry. “You have to think about worst-case scenarios ahead of time,” she says. “That’s what we stress over and over.” Careful documentation, Wegener tells me, is the golden rule of emergency response; that way when collections have to be evacuated, conservators can keep track of an object’s whereabouts. “If they can’t find it,” she whispers, “I haven’t done my job.”

Wegener’s passion for preserving heritage at risk was sparked by the American-led invasion of Iraq. One morning in 2003, she woke up to news of widespread archaeological looting following the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces. She was then a museum curator in Minneapolis, but she was also an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve’s Civil Affairs Division, and she was aghast that plans hadn’t been set in place to prevent such losses. She began calling senior Army contacts, and before long she was dispatched to the Iraqi National Museum to help out. “It was a crash course in archaeology and excavation, and how you properly bring things back,” she says.

Wegener joined the Smithsonian staff in 2012, after the group she founded in 2006—the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield—worked with the Institution to protect cultural property in Haiti threatened by the massive earthquake there in 2010. The committee describes itself as a cultural Red Cross, named for the “blue shield” emblem used by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to designate sites that are off-limits to combatants—a treaty the U.S. didn’t ratify until 2009. After years of navigating academic and political organizations, though, she has a healthy skepticism of bureaucracies. “Let’s just see how we can save the stuff,” she often finds herself saying.

Wegener shows me pictures from a three-day workshop she conducted in Gaziantep, Turkey, where archaeologists from northern Syria were trained in emergency conservation and provided with items like Tyvek, power tools, bubble wrap and other materials to safeguard antiquities. (Wegener and the Smithsonian work primarily with opposition-friendly archaeologists in rebel-held areas of Syria; to cooperate with the Syrian regime’s Department of Antiquities could violate American sanctions against the country.) The projects undertaken after the archaeologists returned home included a covert initiative, in Syria’s northern Idlib province, to protect one important museum by sandbagging the structure and encasing its inlaid Byzantine-era mosaics in water-soluble glue and cloth; when the area was later hit by a massive barrel bomb deployed by the Syrian government, the mosaics remained largely intact.

The institute in Erbil, a spacious two-story building that includes dormitories, classrooms, conservation laboratories and boardrooms, was set up with funding from the U.S. State Department in 2009, in a venture that includes the Kurdish regional government, the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the University of Delaware. Since then, more than 300 Iraqi students have learned to preserve everything from buildings to manuscripts. Under the guidance of Jessica Johnson, the Smithsonian’s head of conservation and the Erbil institute’s academic director, the ordinary practice of archaeological conservation is still taught here.

Lately things have become more urgent. In the institute’s ramshackle backyard stand mud-brick mock-ups of three traditional structures—a dome, an arch and a vaulted roof. One afternoon I arrive to find students wearing hard hats and busily investigating the innards of each construction. Some snap photos; others are hurriedly drawing sketches to scale. Plastic “artifacts” have been secreted inside each structure. The assignment is to rapidly document a museum building or a heritage site in advance of catastrophic damage. It is a sign of just how grave matters have become in this part of the world that each group has been allotted only 15 minutes.

A couple of days later, El-Habashi hands the heftiest student a sledgehammer and invites him to smash the buildings. After a few carefully judged strikes at each one, they collapse in turn. Bricks roll across the tarmac. Brian Lione, an American and the institute’s executive director, who is documenting everything with a video camera, shrugs philosophically. “We’ll build another one,” he says.

Soon one group is using wooden beams to stabilize the fractured dome, referring to a design sketch they had drawn up before it was “attacked.” A second has made a grid out of tape in the rubble, and is painting numbers on loose bricks to indicate their position in the arch. A third group is carefully retrieving the toy artifacts from the collapsed roof of the vault, documenting them and packing them in a crate. It’s painstaking work, but, as Wegener explains, there is no substitute for preparation.

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian took over responsibility for running expanded conservation-training courses at the institute, in a contract with the State Department, but it’s clear that the critical steps are taken by local curators and residents. “Iraqis and Syrians today are risking their lives by trying to care for cultural heritage,” says Wegener. “Many are forced to leave and become refugees, but in the cases where things are saved, it’s very often due to the actions of the staff or the community on the ground.”

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