One Year Later, Smithsonian Conservators Working Hard to Save Haiti’s Art and Culture

One year ago today, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of Haiti

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One year ago today, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of Haiti, killing an estimated 222,570 people, injuring thousands more, displacing millions and decimating the buildings and land. The global response was immediate and overwhelming, with people and nations pledging to provide humanitarian relief in the form of monetary donations, medical supplies, clothes and the most basic of necessities, a helping hand.

The Smithsonian Institution, along with a coalition of organizations focused on the arts and the humanities, formed the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, or the Projet de Sauvetage du Patrimoine Cultural Haïtien, and focused its relief efforts on helping restore and conserve Haitian art damaged in the earthquake. In a country struggling to provide basic necessities like food, water and shelter after a crippling disaster, the art conservation project was not without controversy. In a country still trying to recover, some still wonder why.

“A big issue for everyone, I think, is why are we doing this,” said Paul Jett, Head of Conservation and Scientific Research for the Freer and Sackler Galleries and one of the experts working on the project. “With all of Haiti’s problems, why are we spending our time working on art?”

The simple answer was that art matters. And in a country like Haiti, where art is intrinsic to culture, preserving it is also critical to that culture's survival.

“I think that is something that people who’ve not ever been to Haiti, or really experienced the Haitian culture, don’t understand,” said Hugh Shockey, Object Conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Shockey, who has been involved in the conservation effort in Haiti from the beginning and has previous experience working in disaster recovery, recalls being struck by the commitment of the Haitian people to preserve their own art, even before the Smithsonian got involved. “They had already done a lot of the hard work, which was actually trying to get stuff out of the elements,” Shockey said. “That’s tremendous.”

The Haiti Cultural Recovery Center officially opened in June of 2010, with the arrival of the first objects to be restored. The goal of professional conservators at the center is twofold—they help restore damaged artwork and teach courses on preservation for laypeople. “It would be foolhardy to think that an effort to preserve and restore cultural heritage supplied solely by an outside entity would be a sustainable plan,” said Shockey. Instead, professionals provide training, classes and hands-on experience to former employees, volunteers and people who were already associated with cultural organizations in Haiti before the earthquake. “Those who have shown an aptitude move further into the physical, actually working on things,” said Shockey.

Understandably, the subject of progress is difficult to broach or even qualify in any real way. “It’s very hard to talk about because the magnitude of the problems is so great and what a few people can do in limited amounts of time is pretty small,” said Paul Jett, who most recently visited the center last December.“But the project, in and of itself, is going very well.”

Currently, the focus of the center’s attention is on restoring the Centre d’Art Collection in Port-au-Prince, particularly the roughly 300 to 350 iron sculptures that, like the paintings, were picked out of the rubble immediately after the disaster and stored temporarily in bins. Once the works are removed from storage, they must be cataloged, photographed, measured, given minor treatments and then stored again. The works with the greatest historical importance are treated further.

Next month, Jett reports, the center will begin removing and storing the murals from the Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was so badly damaged during the earthquake that it will have to be leveled and rebuilt, all with the hopes of one day returning these important works to the new cathedral. Two paper conservators are also scheduled to travel to Haiti in February to lend a hand and to bring additional supplies.

The Smithsonian plans to transition control of the center to local workers in November of this year, according to Shockey. The idea was never to be a permanent presence there but, instead, to help in the immediate aftermath and to provide the training and skills needed to continue restoration in the long run. “There is some effort, and some dreaming right now, that maybe a partnership will be formed with a university or a school there in Haiti,” said Shockey, “and they can continue to provide training to students.”

“This is really important to this whole sort of lineage of cultural artists," said Shockey. "Being an artist in Haiti, while it may not be a profitable profession, it is certainly revered.” And having Haitians take control of efforts to preserve and restore their art is essential to its survival.

Even so, “the degree of devastation was so extensive that the Haitian people are looking at years, if not decades, of recovery,” Shockey said. “In preservation, we don’t really think in human life times, we think in much longer time spans,” he said, referencing the Florence flood of the 1960s which, he said, to this day, Italy is still treating works of art that were damaged in that event.

While neither Jett nor Shockey have specific plans to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, reflection, on a day like today, is unavoidable. “Disasters happen,” Shockey said.  “And culture is important to all of us because it’s really how we define who we are as human beings. Everyone should take pause and think about the things that they think are important in defining and maybe think about, well, what would I do in the event something happened? What is the most important thing? After family, what is that one thing that’s my own personal treasure that I should think more about how I’m going to make sure it continues to exist?”

For Haitians, that thing is art. “It’s very integrated into the fabric of daily life and culture,” said Jett, “so this is an important thing for them in terms of coming back as a country.”

Art is also an important tool in the healing process. If you haven't already, check out the online exhibition of art work done by Haitian children after the earthquake. The actual exhibit, "The Healing Power of Art," on display at the African Art Museum, has been extended until February 27.

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