Since the Haitian Earthquake Four Years Ago, Helping Hands Made a World of Difference

The Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art & Culture reflects on the effort to recover Haiti’s cultural heritage in the aftermath of the 2010 quake

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Paper conservator Bernard Colla treats a gouache from the Centre d‘Art collection. Photo courtesy of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Haitians helped their neighbors, pulling survivors out of the rubble, treating the wounded and feeding the hungry. In the capital Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area—hit hardest by the tremors, the populace gathered and incredibly, sang uplifting hymns to raise spirits. Haitians have an amazing resilience that runs deep, born of an early 19th-century fight for independence and the abolition of slavery, and reinforced by repeated challenges ever since. It is a cultural characteristic that provides the spirit and strength to overcome hardship and is amply expressed in Haiti's arts and artworks. Working to restore and recover that country’s cultural heritage not only pays homage to that enduring resilience but also encourages its continuity to help Haitians craft their future.

Threats to cultural heritage—whether from man-made or natural causes, have sparked an international interest among diverse groups in working to help people around the United States and abroad respond to disasters. Like humanitarian aid, restoration and recovery of cultural heritage represents a fine, charitable aspect of the American story. Next month, the upcoming film The Monuments Men celebrates the tale of how an unlikely band of civilian art historians, artists, archaeologist and archivists became a unit of the U.S. Army and set out to preserve and recover Nazi-looted art during World War II. Safeguarding European works of art from the weapons of war demonstrated an unprecedented effort never before seen in history. This week as the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti four years ago approaches, a number of Smithsonian researchers and scholars, along with a host of international partners, can take pride in the efforts underway to restore and recover Haitian cultural heritage in the wake of that catastrophic blow.

The 2010 earthquake, which lasted just 35 seconds, killed as many as 300,000, left more than 1.5 million homeless, devastated Haiti’s infrastructure and threatened its cultural foundations to the very core. “Thousands of paintings and sculptures—valued in the tens of millions of dollars—were destroyed or badly damaged in museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, government ministries and the National Palace,” wrote Bill Brubaker for Smithsonian magazine. The earthquake destroyed, damaged and endangered the archives, libraries and collections of artworks and artifacts that gave form to Haitian culture and provided not only documentation of its peoples’ history and identity, but also inspired such values of dignity, freedom, self-reliance, community, faith and creativity that would be needed for the society to recover and flourish in the future.

The United Nations, international relief agencies like the Red Cross, and the governments of the United States, Sweden, Japan, Brazil and France, as well as many private individuals provided the resources for troops and volunteers, to deliver food, medicine, clothing, tarps, tents, generators and other equipment to ensure the survival of millions.

The Smithsonian, too, lent a hand. With the cooperation of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, other U.S. federal cultural agencies, and UNESCO, the Smithsonian organized the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in Port-au-Prince. Fortunately, because of the good work done with Haitian scholars and cultural officials when the country was featured at the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a group of willing and very capable Haitian colleagues to work with was immediately identified. They formed the core of a Project staff, and cleared the way for approvals and cooperation with the Haitian government and its Ministry of Culture.

Smithsonian officials rented a building formerly used by the U.N., brought in generators and equipment, and scores of Smithsonian staff and trained professionals associated with the American Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) joined Haitian colleagues in establishing conservation labs and teams to save Haiti’s material culture.

As artifacts and artwork were pulled from the rubble, the project treated some 4,000 paintings and more than 500 sculptures damaged at the Centre d’Art. Expertise was corralled to care for the 3,000-item Lehmann Voudoo collection, and some 13,000 historical volumes from the Corvington and Trouillot libraries. One team worked adeptly to save three surviving larger than life-size murals from the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral—a national treasure that represented scenes from the Bible, Haitian-style. New facilities were built to house priceless historical documents at the National Archives and improvements made to MUPANAH, the national museum, and to the National Library. Items were saved from another dozen art collections. Over the course of the past few years, the Smithsonian and its partners saved and treated some 35,000 items and trained some 150 Haitians in basic conservation work. The project was supported by the Broadway League, USAID, the Affirmation Arts Fund and others.

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Stephanie Hornbeck inpaints losses on bust of Alexandre Petion from the collections of MUPANAH. Photo courtesy of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project

Today, the effort is transitioning into a new, longer-term sustainable project because the need to restore, as well as continually care for, Haiti’s cultural resources is indeed an ongoing task. With support from the Stiller Foundation, the Smithsonian is working with Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, to build and operate a Cultural Conservation Center to be built on its campus. For the first time, Haitians will earn credit, take courses and workshops, and be systematically trained in the conservation arts and sciences—so they can themselves steward both public and private collections of manuscripts, books, documents, paintings, sculpture and artifacts. The Center will also be equipped with operational conservation labs for training and will also serve the community as a kind of conservation clinic. In addition to qualified faculty appointed by Quisqueya, the Smithsonian will periodically send to Haiti its own and cooperating experts to help with instruction.

The Cultural Recovery Project has not only had consequences in Haiti. It opened up the prospect of enlisting Smithsonian expertise in this field to help others in the U.S. and around the world respond to cultural disasters. The Smithsonian lent expertise and materials to arts organizations in the New York area after Superstorm Sandy. And currently, Smithsonian scholars are aiding the National Museum of Mali in caring for its collections following the assault on heritage by Islamic extremists. We’ve reached out to colleagues involved in saving threatened cultural heritage in Japan, Syria, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The Smithsonian has increasingly worked together with the U.S. Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, and with such international organizations as UNESCO, ICCROM, the International Council of Museums and the International Committee of the Blue Shield to assure the conservation and protection of cultural resources when threatened by human conflict and natural disaster. 

Haiti's Treasures: Out of the Rubble - Recovering Thread by Thread

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