Recovering culture amid catastrophe

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Richard Kurin (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Shortly after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, a team led by the Smithsonian Institution traveled there to assess the damage to the devastated nation’s cultural heritage. 

Richard Kurin, under secretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian Institution, was a member of the team and helped to assemble it — a task complicated by the fact that the federal government has no official disaster-response mechanism focused on protecting cultural heritage.

Kurin, currently the Smithsonian’s acting provost, described his experiences during a talk Thursday at Yale’s Sudler Hall, which was presented in conjunction with the U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents, hosted by Yale this week.

Kurin said he was struck by the way the Haitian people, in the midst of unspeakable loss and destruction, sought strength from their culture.

“When you face disaster, that’s not when culture deserts you; it’s when you need it the most,” he said. “You rely on that inner-strength. That’s what they did. They relied on that resilience that their culture gave them.”

Six weeks after the earthquake, the Smithsonian had assembled an international coalition of organizations and had established a cultural recovery headquarters in Haiti, which was managed by Haitians. Conservators from the Smithsonian and other institutions began treating damaged artwork, archives, and artifacts.

Kurin said the recovery effort focused on training Haitian conservators to recover and restore cultural materials. 

“The extent of the damage was so great, so much work had to be done, that we could never do it,” he said. “It really had to go into Haitian hands. The whole idea was to train Haitians from the very inception of the project so this could be handled over the long term.”

Mark Aronson, chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art, travelled to Haiti in 2011 to repair damaged artwork and train conservators. The following year, a Haitian conservators visited Yale to continue their training. They treated 15 portraits of Haitian leaders from the 1870s, including François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first president of Haiti, held in the collection of the anthropology department at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The effort rescued about 5,000 paintings from the rubble of Port-au-Prince’s Centre d’Art, the nation’s primary art museum. Haiti’s national archives, thrown in disarray by the disaster, were recovered and reorganized organized.  Three surviving murals from St. Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, which was wrecked by the quake, were salvaged and restored.

“This was more than salvaging arts and salvaging culture,” Kurin said. “It was salvaging life. It was very, very moving.”

Kurin said a similar international effort is needed to rescue cultural heritage sites threatened by warfare, natural disasters, and manmade climate change across the globe, including in Mali, Nepal, Iraq and Syria, where he said ISIS has made the looting and destruction of major cultural heritage sites “a bureaucratic, organized activity.”

The Senate this month passed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, legislation that advises the president to establish an interagency coordinating committee to protect cultural property at risk from armed conflict, political instability, and natural and other disasters. The bill had already passed the House of Representatives.

Kurin envisions an agency similar to Doctor Without Borders, which provides emergency medical aid to areas affected by wars, epidemics, and other disasters.

“We need culture without borders,” he said.

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