Conservation Haiti

Haiti heritage rescue could stall

Chief conservator stresses need for continuity of funding after handover to local authorities

George Nader and works rescued from the rubble of the Nader Museum, which housed the collector’s vast assemblage of Haitian art

In the 22 months since a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, heritage professionals from the US, Canada and Europe have worked non-stop with their Haitian colleagues, through cho­lera epidemics and political up­heavals, to salvage the country’s fragile heritage. Among the many initiatives re­sulting from the disaster was the Smithsonian’s creation of a new conservation centre where foreign conservators could assess and conserve works pulled from the rubble as well as train a new generation of native conservators. But before handing over the centre to the Haitian government on 1 November, the chief conservator expressed concerns about its future should the necessary funding not be raised to sustain the project.

“We’ve got a great foundation but it is important not to break the momentum so we can transition efficiently,” says chief conservator Stephanie Hornbeck. “It will be very hard to recreate what we’ve established if it all dissipates owing to a lack of funds.” They are relying on money from the US State Department and USAID to help with the transition costs and are unsure what the actual figure will be, but are hopeful it will be enough to carry on the centre’s work for a few months beyond November. Grant opportunities and private donations are also being explored so that salaries can be paid and activities such as training and the stabilisation of works can continue. She estimates that “several million” is needed for the centre to be truly sustainable.

“We will continue to pay the storage costs for the 10,000 works at the centre, as most of the institutions are not in a state to receive the pieces back,” she says. A building belonging to the Ministry of Tourism is being renovated to accommodate the conservation and object registration needs, with a goal of completion in January 2012—the second anniversary of the disaster.

It’s not a sprint

In its 15 months of operation, the centre has trained 100 individuals in collection management and registration methods, and has participated in two significant conservation projects: the consolidation and lifting of the famed 1950s murals from the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the stabilisation of works from the Centre d'Art, which was razed in the quake. The latter project took nine months and involved all 15 members of staff. Following the disaster, museum staff retrieved 6,000 works from the rubble and placed them in two containers.

“Works were stacked floor to ceiling—paintings on canvas, paintings on Masonite [hardboard], iron sculpture, works on paper—not systematically as they had to work very quickly,” says Hornbeck. Mould was a major concern, as the containers were not climate-controlled. Readings taken by Hornbeck at the time show humidity and temperature levels to be 88 degrees and over 100 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. Remarkably, conservators were able to stabilise around 90% of the salvaged works.

“We’ve made an impact, recovered a lot of damaged cultural patrimony and, some would say, even exceeded our objectives, but one of our greatest goals is sustainability and that is tenuous right now for us,” says Hornbeck. “The thing about post-disaster cultural recovery is that it takes decades—it’s not a two- or three-year solution.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated on 22 November to correct a few errors. Stephanie Hornbeck is chief conservator of the recovery efforts, not project supervisor. Funding for the project comes from the US State Dept as well as USAID. And the conservation centre has participated in the stabilisation of works from the Centre d'Art, not the Nader Museum.

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