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From the Rubble of Haitian Earthquake: Art Salvage

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haitian-muralAt the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation I met up with Susan Blakney, painting conservator freshly returned from Haiti as part of a delegation to determine the size of the task of saving and salvaging art. Her efforts were part of the AIC-CERT program.

In piles of 500, Susan a well experienced emergency preparedness expert for salvaging art post Katrina, said she has never seen so many paintings all in one place when she visited Port-au-Prince last week.

Of course the devastation is massive. And the human needs are extreme. But, the impetus and inspiration for this trip, Corine Wegener a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, has another nightmare in mind that haunts her.

As a retired Army major, she served in Iraq shortly after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. Ms. Wegener said she had been horrified by what had happened at the Iraqi National Museum, where she worked as a liaison between staff members and American officials during her deployment. “It was so disturbing for me as a museum professional to see the staff so completely in shock,” she said. “How would I feel if I came to work one day and found 15,000 objects had been looted?” She was determined not to see history repeat itself in Haiti, she said, and believed that the sooner conservators arrived on the ground, the more artworks could be saved.

Ms. Wegener quickly arranged a meeting of art professionals and State Department officials in Washington about how to provide cultural assistance, and invited Mr. Richard Kurin, the under secretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian Institution who already had ties to Haiti from organizing programs on Haitian art and culture for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in 2004. They have made several trips so far assessing the needs and organizing the project.

The Smithsonian Institution is organizing the effort, supported by the CERT team of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC-CERT), which will open a center there in June where American conservators will work side-by-side with Haitian staff members to repair torn paintings, shattered sculptures and other works pulled from the rubble of museums and churches. Haitian artists and cultural professionals have been conducting informal salvage operations for the past four months. But the Americans are bringing conservation expertise — there are few if any professionally trained art conservators in Haiti — nor any special equipment or proper supplies.

The initiative, in its swiftness, its close collaboration with a foreign government and its combination of private and government financing, represents a new model of American cultural diplomacy, one that organizers believe stands in stark contrast to the apathy Americans were accused of exhibiting during the looting of Iraqi artistic treasures in 2003.

“Mistakes have been made in the past, in times of great tragedy or upheaval, by not protecting and prioritizing a country’s cultural heritage,” said Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which has been involved in finding money for the project. “I think this is a huge opportunity for us to say, ‘We get it.’ ”

Ms. Blakney traveled here last week with two other conservators, a museum curator, and a group of engineers and planning experts from the Smithsonian. The conservators’ task was to assess precisely what kinds of damage the art had sustained, not just from the earthquake but from subsequent exposure to rain and sun and from improper storage both before and after the quake. Based on that information, they will decide what specialized equipment that they, or whoever the Smithsonian ends up sending to work at the center, will need.

Restoring the most compromised art will not be a job for beginners. If the Episcopal Church decides to save the surviving murals from Holy Trinity, which were painted in the early 1950s by some of Haiti’s most famous artists, they will probably need to be removed from the damaged building — a feat of engineering as much as conservation that would involve gluing a piece of fabric to the face of each mural and attaching the mural to a secondary support structure of plywood or steel before chiseling it away from the wall.

The American conservators will spend part of their time training Haitians in conservation, in preparation for turning the laboratory over to them.

Mr. Kurin conveyed the need for help to Ms. Goslins of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, a group that includes the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as well-connected art patrons like the Broadway producer Margo Lion, who is a co-chairman of the committee. The three agencies ended up committing $30,000 each, while the Broadway League, of which Ms. Lion is a member, contributed $276,000.

The initial financing is coming from three federal agencies and the Broadway League, the trade group for theater owners and producers. Smithsonian officials say the project will cost $2 million to $3 million over the next year and a half, after which the center is expected to be turned over to the Haitian government.

As for the rest of the money that’s needed, Ms. Goslins expressed confidence that it would materialize once the center was operating.

What can the Haitian Earthquake teach you, at home/office, about preparing?

Rest assured you live and work in buildings better constructed than the Haitians. Susan Blakney confirmed that the rubble was mostly due to unreinforced concrete and cinderblock construction. The one building left in the area of her visit is a 7500 sq. ft warehouse built by the Army Corps of Engineers with proper building codes. It was left undamaged amidst the surrounding rubble of the quake.

What about the art, valued collectibles and important records in your home or office?

When there will be an earthquake in your area, there will be many, many homes that will be only badly rattled. That’s the case, also, in a hurricane, tornado or even a bad storm; a focused area gets the brunt of the impact and the vast outlying areas just get shook up. So, actually, there are huge numbers of people that were not physically at risk, but they may have lost and had damaged many cherished family treasures.

Disaster preparedness for your personal items includes knowing how to protect your genealogy, heirlooms, photographs, letters, old books, art work and important documents. Set priorities and protect, first, your most important items. Here are 7 tips to help you be better prepared:

  1. Use an anchor wax to secure items that can fly off shelves and rattle around in display cases. (Home Depot) This is a VERY good tip!

  1. Keep photos in archival photo albums that are easy to grab and go. Keep them in a book case or storage box that is easy to get to.

  1. Keep storage boxes away from water pipes (water heaters too) that could break and flood on your treasured items (causing water and mold damage).

  1. Make sure hanging hooks AND wires are strong, oversized and well anchored into the wood. I can’t tell you how many paintings and frames I’ve repaired that fall off the wall onto a corner of a table or through a vase. Or what about that heavy item hanging over your head in bed!!??

  1. Photograph treasured keepsakes and copy docs; keep a copy in another location (another city or state!)

  1. You may need supplemental insurance for earthquakes. Make sure your homeowner’s policy covers your contents. Heirlooms should not require a Fine Arts rider but should fall under your regular home owner’s policy. You will still need photos and values for a claim (go to

  1. Get a copy of “How To Save Your Stuff From A Disaster” (

For a copy of “How To Save Your Stuff From A Disaster” click, now, on

The author, Scott M. Haskins, has worked in both Italy and the U.S. as a professional conservator for the last 35 years. He has been personally involved in nine “major” California disasters and has consulted with people throughout the US and Italy on numerous other disasters. He works with the general public, historical societies, museums, corporations, private collectors, art galleries, state governments and the federal government. He wrote a pamphlet on earthquake response of which 500,000 were distributed in LA after the Northridge Earthquake by the Bank of America Corp. human resource department. Recently his pamphlet, “How To Protect and Save Valuable Possessions In Your Office From A Hurricane” was distributed at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Corine Wegener, Susan Blakney can be found on Facebook and Twitter

Scott Haskins is on My Space, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and Plaxo

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One Response to "From the Rubble of Haitian Earthquake: Art Salvage"
  1. Pau Sleal says:

    The Weather Channel is reporting on the heavy tornado damage in our area of the country right now. So, I guess my awareness is peaked but it seems your posts are even more important than usual! I stay connected with the auto updates and appreciate your constant posts and good info. Thanks.

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