Yale conservator helps restore artworks in Haiti

Yale conservator Mark Aronson with some of the members of the team who worked to restore Haitian artworks.
Yale conservator Mark Aronson (second from left) with some of the members of the team who worked to restore Haitian artworks.

During his first-ever trip to Haiti this summer, Yale conservator Mark Aronson couldn’t help but notice one of the more uplifting aspects of life in the earthquake-ravaged country: the ubiquitous presence of art.

Colorfully hand-painted buses, murals and billboards graced the streets in the city of Port-au-Prince, and at spots everywhere, artists stood on the streets selling their own creations.

For Aronson, the chief conservator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, his trip affirmed his belief that art matters, even in a country still grappling with overwhelming challenges as it recovers from the January 2010 earthquake.

Aronson traveled to Haiti this summer to help restore damaged artworks as part of a Smithsonian Institution-led effort called the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. Before setting out, he was sometimes asked: Does your work matter in a place that still has over a million people living in tents and is still cleaning up the rubble?

The answer, Aronson says, is an unequivocal “yes.”

Haiti is so poor, and has a tough history even without the earthquake,” he comments. “But what I saw there were people trying to get back to normal, whatever that means to them. They were going off to work, or putting on their Sunday finest to go to church, having a good time or making and selling art. Some of them had cleaned rubble from an architecturally beautiful and historic church that had no roof left, because it was an important place of ritual and a sanctuary for them. Why shouldn’t art be a part of their society? Art is a very important part of their heritage and culture.”

Aronson signed up to travel to Haiti after seeing a call for volunteers for the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in an e-mail sent out by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, a professional organization. The mission of the project — conducted in partnership with the U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities with assistance from other federal agencies, cultural organizations, non-governmental organizations and the Haitian Ministry of Culture and Communication — is to help recover and restore cultural materials damaged by the earthquake. Some several thousand artworks were lost in the natural disaster.

After the quake, I was hearing about many people at Yale — from medical professionals to students — who were doing things to help the people of Haiti: caring for the injured, performing in benefit concerts to raise money for the recovery effort. When these kinds of disasters occur, you wonder how you can help. People who build can go there and do that; doctors or nurses can go and help those who’ve been hurt or are sick. You can send a check, like many of us did. It was great for me to discover an opportunity to use my set of skills to help.”

Aronson, who at the Yale Center for British Art specializes in the conservation of 18th- and 19th-century paintings, spent two weeks in July working in Port-au-Prince at the Cultural Recovery Center, a walled compound that once housed the U.N. Development Programme and had since been leased by the Smithsonian. There, he helped restore a half-dozen paintings as part of a small team of U.S. and Haitian conservators, artists and art students.

Some of the paintings he worked on were severely damaged by impact, suffering profound tears, distortions and much paint loss. The artworks also required cleaning (to remove dust and grime) and retouching to restore them as closely as possible to their condition before the earthquake. Aronson’s only library as he worked was a collection of six books that contained images of some of the artists’ other paintings, but none of the actual work he was restoring.

The conservator, whose uses the most up-to-date conservation tools at the Yale Center for British Art, learned to make do with more old-fashioned instruments and equipment while he was in Haiti. Where at Yale he would line a painting on a vacuum-hot table or use irons made for the task of eliminating distortions, in Haiti he used a traditional clothes iron. Books and concrete blocks were used as weights to flatten canvases; back home, Aronson would have used specialized equipment.

While our tools were very basic, the artworks benefited from some very sophisticated, but expensive, adhesives that were flown in for the project. But being in Haiti has since made me think hard, as we advance our profession, about how we are modernizing,” says Aronson. “What are some of the things we’re leaving behind that we shouldn’t? I felt that some of the old techniques, such as using flour and water to make a traditional paste adhesive — something I am not skilled at — could be very helpful to know.”

Aronson earned his M.S. in conservation and restoration at the University of Delaware in Newark, and has been a conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery and a guest conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He has long been interested in the history of painting techniques and attitudes about restoration and conservation. Since 2008, he has been a critic in painting at the Yale School of Art.

In addition to restoring damaged works, the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project aims to help Haitian museum professionals improve art and artifact storage and management systems, and to provide training in these areas and in conservation.

It was a treat for me to work with the people from Haiti,” says Aronson, who oversaw the work in the painting conservation studio during one of his weeks in the country. “I went down there with earnest intentions and hope that each painting I worked on was doing something good to preserve a piece of Haitian culture. I was most happy, though, about the training aspect of my work, and the good colleagues I met.”

Earlier this semester, Aronson shared his experience in Haiti in a public talk on campus, and treated his audience to some pictures of artworks by Haitian artists that are in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Peabody Museum of Natural History. “It was wonderful for me to learn how much Haitian art we have here at Yale,” he says.

His profession, he notes, is alluring to those who appreciate art because it allows them to combine diverse interests in one job.

It’s a profession based in craft, art history and science,” Aronson comments. “It involves both hand skills and academic skills. If you are interested in science, you can develop a better glue; if you are interested in art history, you can study how Sir Joshua Reynolds painted. If you are a craftsperson, you can sit at an easel and do restorations all day long. For people who can’t decide between these interests but are curious about a lot of things, it’s fun stuff.”

For more on the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, visit http://haiti.si.edu.

Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,