Saving Culture: Heritage in Crisis Today

First published on Imps in the Archive on 8 October 2019.

How to save cultural heritage from earthquakes, floods, war and other disasters was the topic for the sixth Andrew Carnegie lecture at the University of Glasgow

Dr Richard Kurin from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington spoke about the development and the work of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.

The Smithsonian was established with a bequest from a British citizen – James Smithson – tasked to be an establishment for the  ‘increase and diffusion of knowledge’. It now has 19 museums and a zoo and carries out research, educational activities and holds public events related to global history, culture and science. It also has a partnership with the University of Glasgow.

It’s role in cultural preservation in times of crisis can be traced back to the Monuments Men (and women) whose mission was to save the cultural treasure of Europe in danger of destruction during the Second World War. They later worked on tracing works stolen and looted by the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners.

Two more recent events highlighted again the need for this type of intervention. Principally, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was criticised for failing to prevent looting and destruction at the National Museum in Baghdad and the cultural damage sustained as a result of the failure of US government responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2004.

These prompted reflections on ‘how can we do better?’

Which meant that when an earthquake ravaged Haiti in 2010, killing 300,000 people and destroying thousands of buildings, the Smithsonian was better placed to respond effectively.

Dr Kurin showed striking images of the destruction, including the loss of hugely significant items such as 14 murals in the Episcopalian Cathedral which depicted Christianity from an Afro-Haitian perspective.

The happenstance of personal connections between The Smithsonian, US First Lady Michelle Obama and Haitian First Lady Elizabeth Preval focused support for the idea of a mission to Haiti. Then the discovery of an official order by Jackie Kennedy to preserve a building gave the American First Lady precedence to order an intervention.

Funding and resources were rapidly marshalled from public and private sources and work began. Dr Kurin highlighted that the Smithsonian employees who went to Haiti hired local managers to help run the recovery mission. They secured resources like generators and shipping containers to help store rescued items, set up a registration system – eventually logging 35,000 items –  and trained Haitians in conservation techniques.

Another strand of the mission was to provide Haitian artists with materials so that they could start to produce new artworks that provided ways for people to understand or process their experiences. They also supported children to create their own artistic responses, which were later exhibited at The Smithsonian, as part of the process of healing.

He said that in the first few days following the earthquake “Haitians sang and prayed. That’s what they had. That’s when you need it [cultural heritage] the most; it gives you strength and a sense of who you are.”

Since then their experience has been put to good use in other crises as diverse as helping to save ancient manuscripts in Mali and protect small gallery collections in New York after Hurricane Sandy.

What they have learned about emergency responses is in this slide:

Its not simply what you do, but also identifying and finding who and what you need to implement the process. For example, following the Nepal earthquake, a 93-year-old retired Smithsonian employee, who had spent 40 years documenting, appraising and researching Nepali woodcarving was vital to the restoration process.

Since then other projects have included:

  • Working with refugees from Syria – some of whom took shelter near heritage sites in an effort to gain some safety but who did not necessarily understand the heritage as the site – so they could learn more about what it was and how to care for it.
  • Supporting research to analyse the ‘official’ looting systems and networks set up by ISIS, to get greater understanding about how items are located, looted or destroyed. Described by Dr Kurin as the “choreography of destruction”.
  • Taking the message of preservation of cultural heritage to world leaders and influencers, by giving attendees at Davos economic summit 3D prints of a statue from Palmyra – one of the sites destroyed by ISIS.
  • Getting money for fuel to the National Gallery of Puerto Rico after the Hurricane Maria blackout, so it could maintain environmental controls to save artefacts from mould and damp, and also host objects from other threatened collections.
  • Producing leaflets for combatants in the Syrian conflict with photos of historic sites and buildings in Mosul and Raqqa, written in English, Arabic and local languages and designed to slip easily into a camouflage jacket pocket, in an effort to help them avoid damaging precious artefacts.

It was particularly interesting to see hear about a project after severe flooding in Texas in 2017, where Smithsonian curators worked with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to offer preservation advice to anyone who wanted to save personal treasures – such as photographs or family bibles – that were damaged by the floodwaters.

The aim of these projects is to not only preserve items because they are of cultural or historic value but also because wide-ranging perseveration encourages respect for different people and a variety of cultures.

It’s important, said Dr Kurin, because cultural heritage “gives power to people over who they are and who they want to be.” 

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