Conservation of Cultural Heritage in Haiti after 2010 earthquake

Avenue Monseigneur Guilloux is a rutted cross street in downtown Port-au-Prince lined with vendors hustling an array of wares from old TVs and VCRs (especially odd given the unreliability of Port-au-Prince’s electricity supply) to car tires. Young men sit on crates under umbrellas bearing the Digicel logo selling baskets of mobile phone sim cards or recline on gleaming motorbikes waiting for passersby to make use of their make-shift taxi service.

At the end of the road are the decrepit remnants of the once vast white and pale pink Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral, a crumbling shell of contorted metal, weeds and broken glass. It is surrounded on one side by a shantytown of tarpaulin and corrugated iron homes and on the other by a temporary Cathedral that looks more like a concrete warehouse with open sides than a place of worship. Those who attend the Sunday morning services sit on wooden benches under a blue awning; the space also doubles as a place to sleep. A food aid truck arrives and people crowd around squabbling and begging for larger portions while stray dogs hover for scraps.

Two blocks down the street is the entrance to The Bishop’s Court, the center for the Episcopal diocese in Haiti. It is a complex that houses Holy Trinity Cathedral, Holy Trinity Primary, Secondary, Music and Trade Schools and the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Margaret.

Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo

Nothing indicates that behind the high walls topped with broken glass and the dour guard posted at the gate was once one of Haiti’s most famous art attractions. Passing through a car park and a metal fence and then clambering up a flight of concrete stairs a visitor sees the footprint of Holy Trinity Cathedral. A wooden structure with white doors and a low pitched roof squats in what was the nave, nestling in rubble between the bases of what were square columns supporting a high arched ceiling. Inside are two shipping containers, which house three murals from Holy Trinity Cathedral. In keeping with a European tradition of adorning the inside of religious buildings, Haiti’s top artists painted 14 murals directly onto the white walls of the Cathedral between 1950 and 1951. It was no mean feat to get them there; American writer Selden Rodman and the Bishop of the day commissioned the work against the wishes of the majority of the congregation. “They had to fight very very hard to get Naive art on the walls of this church, and depicting people who were black also,” recalls gallery owner Toni Monnin.“It was absolutely stunning.” The paintings were created by the first generation of self-taught artists to emerge from the Naive movement that the Centre d’Art founded in the mid 1940s. The New Testament scenes featured facets of everyday Haitian life. Castera Bazile’s Baptism of Christ, one of the three survivors, vividly depicts men and women washing and fishing in the river while Christ is blessed. The Last Supper by Philomène Obin and Native Procession by Préfète Duffaut also remained. All three were painted on the only five walls of the Cathedral structure that were left standing after the 2010 earthquake. Gallery owner and board member for the Centre d’Arte Axelle Liautaud was showing some New York Times journalists the impact of the earthquake on Haiti’s art and discovered that, “they had ordered the bulldozers to come and level the church. I spoke to the Bishop and I said if we can find a way to do something will you give us your blessing, he said sure, we are just anxious to move on.” Desperate about the potential loss, Liautaud reported her concerns to the Smithsonian team working with the American Institute for Conservation’s Collections Emergency Response Team. As Richard Kurin remembers it, “the Cathedral wasn’t going to come to us, we knew it was a Haitian treasure and we reached out to them.”

Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo

Conservator Viviana Dominguez and her architectural conservator partner Rosa Lowinger were recruited to rescue the murals. Dominguez recalls the initial situation as she found it, “the ceiling completely collapsed and so they [the paintings] were exposed to the environment because there was no roof.” It took a year to organize the conservation team and ship in the supplies they needed. During this time the wall paintings were protected with a wooden structure to hold them in place and a tarpaulin covering; although they still deteriorated because of some exposure to the elements, uncovered fragments of other paintings were totally washed away. Haitian artist Junior Norelus was hired, along with five other Haitians to work on the murals. Norelus was given a week’s training at the Cultural Recovery Project about conservation. “They explained to us what conservation is and why it is important, what conservators get involved in, how to care about objects and how to think about it because before we were just artists,” Norelus says. Dominguez and Lowinger then spent another week detailing the process for removing the paintings from St Trinity.

Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo
Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo
Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo
Holy Trinity Cathedral — Viviana Dominguez photo

Testing at the Getty Conservation Institute and the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute revealed that the crumbling murals were painted using egg tempera applied over a thin concrete render. It was decided the best course of action would be to use a stucco conservation technique. The highly invasive procedure would allow both the mural and the layer of plaster underneath to be peeled off the wall together. It required the team to apply an adhesive and cotton gauze to the surface of the painting to bind the layers of paint and plaster onto a wooden lattice before chiseling off the sections. Once the pieces had been detached, they were laid in vast wooden trays and transported back to the Cultural Recovery Project where the team then worked on individual fragments: “When you take it off the wall it becomes more damaged, we had to remove the gauze and clean them [the fragments],” Norelus explains. The old plaster was removed from behind the paintings and replaced with a new mortar to “make it hard and flat and even. It is like a ceramic tile,” says Norelus. Nothing was done to restore the painted surface except to remove the temporary adhesive. “The process was quite challenging,” Dominguez recalls. “The condition of the pieces was very bad, they were very severely damaged, we were able to do the work, but it took us six months to remove these three murals.”

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On January 12, 2010 an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale ravaged Haiti, killing over 220,000 people and injuring more than 300,000. Haiti was, and remains, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 70% of the population living on less than $2 a day. As a nation that has endured slavery, a shaky republic and a dictatorship the fragile island state was especially vulnerable to the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

Located in the Caribbean, about 600 miles southeast of Florida Haiti is one third of Hispaniola, the other two-thirds being the Dominican Republic. ‘Discovered’ in 1492 by Christopher Columbus the island was a Spanish colony until 1697 when Hispaniola was divided and the Western part (modern-day Haiti), which came under French administration. On January 1, 1804 Haiti declared independence and became the first Black Republic. This victory continues to be a source of hope and motivation. Twentieth century political instability internally and exploitation by foreign governments and investors, coupled with the Caribbean’s vulnerability to natural disasters, stunted economic development resulted in a weak infrastructure in Haiti. A reliance on aid agencies to provide many services has led to the country being labeled by critics as the Republic of NGOs. Garry Pierre Pierre, Publisher of the Haitian Times, says: “The UN makes 90% of the decisions in Haiti. Nobody trusts the government, that’s why you have this whole parallel government that is called NGOs. There are more NGOs in Haiti than anywhere else in the world.”

Haiti’s dependence on foreign administration further compounded the disaster, the then Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour describes; “the international community in Haiti was decapitated. Ninety staff members were killed in the UN building. Twenty two governmental buildings were destroyed, including the legislature,” in essence, he says, “every physical infrastructure representing the state of Haiti was destroyed.” Despite an influx of over $6 billion in foreign aid the country lacked the resources to co-ordinate a recovery effort on its own.

Haiti’s history has produced a society of survivors, people who can make something from nothing. It is a culture where people have pieced together fragments of other cultures to create their own language and build an identity. Author of Culture and Customs of Haiti, Michael Dash was struck on his first visit to Haiti in the 1970s by how the arts community refused to be oppressed by the Duvalier regime. “There was an incredible determination not to allow the politics to depress you to the point where it paralyzes you,” he says “And I think that is still true.” The artwork is lush and luxuriant, which for Dash is symbolic as a collective coping mechanism; people choose to paint the paradise island fantasy rather than the harsh, ruined reality. Texan Toni Monnin, owner of one of Haiti’s oldest galleries, the Gallery Monnin, which was started by her Swiss husband’s family in 1956 remembers the reaction of the artistic community: “The earthquake was on a Tuesday and on the Saturday after the earthquake we were here and almost every artist we work with showed up because they were just totally lost. On that Saturday one of the artists, Frantz Zéphirin, brought us an earthquake painting, and the following week almost everybody came with either a painting that they had sketched or that they were working on. That’s the thing about the art here.”

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Heritage conservation is not the first thing on peoples’ minds in disastrous circumstances. Yet major Haitian national treasures like the National Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Supreme Court and the Episcopal Church’s Holy Trinity Cathedral were all damaged. Arts infrastructure was destroyed, and as many of Haiti’s heritage objects were privately owned they disappeared. Haitians lost the buildings and objects that were their cultural heritage, a heritage that would be critical in rebuilding their society.

Initial assessment of the damage to cultural heritage in Haiti were conducted very quickly, the International Council of Museums staff on the ground released a report 10 days after the earthquake on the status of Haiti’s museums and what had been done to protect their contents. There was however, no plan for how to recover, treat, restore and redisplay any of the artwork in Haiti.

The Smithsonian has a long standing relationship with Haiti. Swiss Anthropologist and Central and Southern America expert Alfred Métraux worked for the Smithsonian and donated the artifacts he collected from his 1941 summer expedition to Haiti to the museum. In 2004, for the centenary of the anniversary of independence, the Smithsonian organized the Folk Life Festival celebrating Haitian freedom and creativity on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Olsen Jean Julien a former Culture Minister in the Haitian government had worked for the Smithsonian, as had Patrick Delatour, the Haitian Minister for Tourism.

Richard Kurin, then Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian decided the organisation must be part of the recovery, “I thought, my God, these are our colleagues, we worked with them. The Smithsonian can’t provide food, or medical care, or housing, but we sure as hell have something to offer the Haitian people in helping preserve their heritage.” Kurin believed United States agencies had been caught, as he put it, “flat footed on culture,” with the invasion of Iraq and the looting of the museum and other sites. “The US Government totally didn’t appreciate the heritage of the people who we were going in to supposedly help. I think it hurt US prestige and I think it was unnecessary.” For Kurin, the Smithsonian had also shirked its responsibility to protect and preserve cultural heritage on home soil when the Institute failed to come to the aid of cultural institutions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Corine Wegener, then President of the United States Committee of the Blue Shield, a cultural Red Cross, was pushing for unilateral action among cultural organizations in Haiti. Wegener had served as Monuments and Archives Officer for the United States Army in Iraq where she witnessed the looting from Baghdad Museum and was only too aware of the risks to Haiti’s heritage, history and identity. Wegener met with colleagues from other aid agencies in Minneapolis, where she had been a curator for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to discuss piggybacking on charities already operating in Haiti. The response was a resounding no. Aid workers, she was told, already lacked drinking water, basic sanitation and many were living in tents. To add another burden on top of the humanitarian effort was unacceptable. What seemed clear to Wegener was that if there was to be a cultural recovery effort, one organization needed to take the lead.

When Kurin met Corine Wegener at the American Association of Museums in February, the two decided to work together to formulate a plan of action. The pair along with a team from the Smithsonian went down to Haiti in March and met with Jean Julian and Delatour, who was heading up the recovery effort for culture. Kurin also sought out the US Embassy in Haiti, although in the end it was the military, and General Ken Keen who proved to be the most enthusiastic supporters of the project. The US Army already had 20,000 soldiers in Haiti and with murmurings growing among Haitians about US imperialism, working with the Smithsonian was seen as a way of showing respect for Haitian culture. Nothing could be done however without orders from the US State Department and Defense Department and the agreement of the Haitian government.

From then on contacts and chance proved to be the vital spark driving the project forward. Back in D.C. Michelle Obama was visiting the Smithsonian to mark the display of her inaugural dress and Kurin took the opportunity to tell her about what they were planning in Haiti; coincidentally the Haitian President René Préval and his wife Elizabeth were visiting the White House. The two first ladies decided to put their not inconsiderable clout behind the project. That paved the way for Hillary Clinton to issue orders to General Keen and the State Department to help the Smithsonian. Through friend Rachel Goslins who sits on the Presidents Committee on Arts and Humanities, Kurin was put in touch with Margo Lion the Producer of Hairspray on Broadway and she convinced the Broadway League to donate $260,000 to get the project off the ground.

In March of 2010 The Smithsonian and the Haitian Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding which set out the goals of the project: to save objects in danger from public collections and the best representations of the schools of Haitian art from private collections; to train people so they could continue to work in conservation after the end of the eighteen month project; to consolidate the Haitian Institute for the Protection of National Heritage, or ISPAN, and establish a center for conservation in Haiti.

Kurin hired Haitian Jean Julien Olsen as Project Coordinator and Stephanie Hornbeck who had recently left the National Museum of African Art in D.C. as Chief Conservator. In May 2010 Hornbeck began outfitting the Cultural Recovery Center in a former U.N. Development Program office, the yellow ocher building surrounded by a court-yard nestles in the hills overlooking downtown Port-au-Prince. Describing the initial challenges she says, “we had no facilities, we had no equipment and there was no on the ground expertise to draw on.” The lack of any conservation grade materials in Haiti saw the international conservators volunteering to work on the project lugging in equipment in their luggage. Everything was imported — paintbrushes, microscopes, adhesives, paint, filler material and support fabrics, as well as laptops, cameras, vacuum cleaners and general supplies. That too was a challenge; the first shipments arrived in Haiti in May 2010 but were not distributed to the Smithsonian until August according to Hornbeck.

The chaotic fitting-out of the office was indicative of the first five months that the Center was in operation. The lack of any national record of collections meant Hornbeck had no idea what damaged pieces might be coming her way, or their original condition prior to the earthquake. Unable to plan its work, the whole project was largely operating off the cuff. The focus was on triage, to stabilize paintings and moveable objects by cleaning and removing mold. It was a year before Hornbeck felt the Center was fully functioning as a conservation lab capable of undertaking sophisticated restoration jobs.

The sheer quantity of artifacts compelled the Cultural Recovery Center to work with Haitian institutions to identify what to salvage. Wegener and others took pains not to be perceived as culturally imperialists; they assiduously avoided telling anyone in Haiti what should be conserved. According to Hornbeck, “we felt strongly that Haitians should determine if they wanted to work with us, it was up to them to bring it [the artwork] to us, it wasn’t our role to pick and choose, it was their responsibility.” For Conservator Beverly Perkins, who worked on post-Katrina recovery in the USA and volunteered with the Smithsonian in Haiti it was vital to prevent The Smithsonian being accused of taking control of collections that the local community cannot protect.

Having Haitian Jean Julien front the project not only assuaged Hornebeck’s concerns about imperialism it also functioned as a way of reassuring wary Haitian collection owners. Many were concerned about surrendering their collections to the Cultural Recovery Project, fearing that they would never see them again. Deborah Stolk from Dutch charity the Prince Claus Fund, remembers how, “many owners of the art collections that were hit did not feel comfortable having their collections treated by American institutions.” This was understandable: there were too many organizations coming in wielding “big flags,” she says, “the local community was scared and overwhelmed.”

Because of the lack of trust for outside agencies within Haiti, the Smithsonian drew up a legal agreement for owners to sign stating that they were temporarily lending the work to the project, it would be housed within the Smithsonian facility and it would be treated in the best manner the conservator saw fit. A treatment proposal was then drawn up and Hornbeck assigned a conservator to carry out the work. Conservators decided how to treat objects based on quality, monetary value, cultural significance and historical context, in consultations with the owners and Haitian art historians. The agreement also prevented any painting restored by the Smithsonian from being sold by the owner for four years.

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The Centre d’Arte in Port-au-Prince opened in the 1960s and drew artists from all over Haiti, particularly Jacmel and Cape Haitian, including Hector Hyppolite and Préfète Duffaut. The building was destroyed by the earthquake. Axelle Liautaud, remembers how in the immediate aftermath of the disaster the employees of the Centre d’Arte got a container and they rescued works from the rubble. “There were a lot of people trying to steal things, there was a security problem,” she says. Liautaud arranged a second tractor-trailer container, because the first one had been filled in a matter of days and together the staff “continued getting anything that we could out of the rubble or the rooms that were still up,” Liautaud says. In the end some 4,000 paintings, 1,350 sculptures and 500 works on paper were salvaged.

Japanese UN troops with heavy lifting equipment collected anything else that could be salvaged and that, along with the two containers, was taken to the Cultural Recovery Project where conservators began to inventory, photograph, stabilize by vacuuming and dry cleaning methods and then house every item in secure, dry storage. Liautaud remembers how close the Centre came to loosing everything despite the employees’ hard work; “When we took the containers to them we discovered that one had a hole in the roof … there was so much mold when we opened it. The people had [to wear] masks and goggles.” The Centre also had a large collection of cut ironwork sculpture, known as fer découpé, which suffered severe deformation, corrosion, and accretions of surface dirt from the earthquake and subsequent burial in the rubble. These were also treated. Finally the Cultural Recovery Project trained eight Centre d’Arte employees in the treatment, management and care of damaged collections. “They [the Smithsonian] had the facilities, they had the space, they had the man power and it was like a godsend that they were here right at the time when all of this was happening,” Liautaud says.

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One of the greatest challenges for the Smithsonian was that despite Haiti having a rich arts history the notion of conservation is both familiar and completely foreign. Architectural conservation has a rich history, evident in projects to preserve buildings such as the Citadel, (commissioned by Jean-Jacques Dessalines the leader of the slave revolutionaries as a military fortress and is widely considered the first monument constructed by the newly freed people) which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982 and the iconic Gingerbread houses, multicolored colonial style buildings with lattice balconies which were the product of Haitian prosperity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Applying conservation principles to artworks however, was a novelty. Hornbeck recalls: “People knew about restoration, if they needed a painting restored or cleaned they had self taught restorers that used whatever they had at hand, poor quality glues, shoe polish, poor quality paint brushes, they worked with what they had.” But, she says, “the concept of this as an overall philosophy, where you try to have climate control, storage, preventative conservation, those were really new.”

To introduce the subject Viviana Dominguez delivered a four day introductory conservation workshop to artists who had signed up to the Cultural Recovery Project. Subsequently training was targeted to building painting conservation skills. Focusing on storing and shipping paintings, repairing structural damage, ethics and a perfunctory introduction to the American Institute for Conservators (AIC) code of practice. Dominguez found the training a challenge: “It is difficult to train people that don’t know anything about conservation to start with because they were thrown into a situation where they had to learn the work but they also had to do the work.” Hornbeck feels that the lack of understanding affected what the project could do: “It was difficult to make people understand that you don’t restore something when you need to stabilize 100 moldy things.” Throughout the eighteen months that the Cultural Recovery Project was operational volunteers from the AIC gave additional workshops to Haitian trainees, by the end of the project they could write their own restoration proposals, although they never got to the point of being able to work entirely independently.

Jean Menard Derenoncourt, one of the Centre d’Arte trainees, treated L’homme est Son Chat by St Louise Blaise alone. Derenoncourt, who is a Professor of Fine Art at the École Nationale des Artes in Port-au-Prince, was hired by the Smithsonian because of his background and skill as a professional artist. Part of the Nader collection, L’homme est Son Chat had a six inch gash down the front of it when Derenoncourt began the painstakingly meticulous process of repairing it. Using techniques not dissimilar to stitching up a wound, the painting was reconstructed by realigning the different pieces using a patch to hold the two torn sides together. Each individual canvas thread was then pulled into line with forceps and another patch was glued to the front to keep everything in place. The torn pieces were taped together on the back, and then a new backing was applied to restore tension to the canvas. This was then heat sealed in position. Once the painting was a whole piece again, work began on retouching the scar. Derenoncourt wove new threads together across the gap in the canvas to secure both sides of the tear. Filler was applied over the top to level out the surfaces before he began work on retouching the gap in matching color and texture.

In an interview Derenoncourt, who lost his mother and sister in the earthquake, described how restoring the paintings had become a kind of therapy, “by coming here [the Cultural Recovery Project] I was able to distract myself, to avoid becoming lost.”

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It was the heroic salvage efforts of Haitians after the disaster that gave the Smithsonian conservators something to restore. According to Liautaud, “where you see success is where Haitians got involved and really pushed for things to happen.” Nader agrees that the Smithsonian overstates its importance in the rescue operation, “by May, when they got here we had 99% finished taking out all the paintings from the rubble.”

Whether or not the best things were restored is debatable, Garry Pierre Pierre maintains that, “the best works were at the Met or in Paris, they were not in Haiti and so they weren’t destroyed.” For Georges Nader, owner of the Nader Gallery, the Smithsonian was hampered by its commitment to work on the whole Centre d’Arte collection because it distracted the conservators from attending to the highest profile pieces, “I think this is where they restored the less important paintings.” He says, “they lost some time in cleaning little things.” Hornbeck agrees, “our project wasn’t really geared towards preserving the rare important works, we were trying to address a large volume.”

However some important pieces were saved. Of the 4000 paintings Georges Nadar was able to rescue from the wreckage of the 12000 collection housed at The Musee Galerie d’Art Nader he took just 15 to the Cultural Recovery Project. One was Hector Hyppolite’s Pot de Fleurs. Painting in the 1940s Hyppolite was one of Haiti’s most eminent artists, André Breton wrote about him in Surrealism and Painting, and Truman Capote praised his work in a review for Harper’s Bazaar in 1948. Pot de Fleurs is typical of the Naive style, the painting features a brown vase overflowing with muted flowers sitting on what could be a mosaic table or a cloth. Because of a lack of resources Hyppolite, also a voodoo priest, painted directly onto cardboard, although he did use oil paint. Torn into seven pieces when the Nader Museum collapsed, Pot de Fleurs is now back on display at the new Nader Gallery in Petionville, Port-au-Prince.

Hector Hyppolite’s Pot de Fleurs restored

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The Cultural Recovery Project can rightly claim some success in Haiti. It rescued some 30,000 objects and restored many items, without it nothing on such a large scale would have been done. Stephanie Hornbeck Chief Conservator at the Cultural Recovery Project sees it as a potential model for the future of disaster conservation. “It took such a huge effort to build an infrastructure — physical, but also of people, officials, arts professionals, international professional art organizations, that we came to think it could be replicated” she says. Richard Kurin cites five aspects of the Cultural Recovery Project that could be the basis of a model. The first is having liquid assets that enable a fast response — the Smithsonian invested $2million in the Cultural Recovery Project. The second is having people with knowledge and experience ready on the ground and willing to work. Thirdly a network of contacts and partners in home countries who are reliable and can get agreements, indemnifications and sort out logistical problems. Fourth, there must be a quick assessment of basic need — not, according to Kurin, by UNESCO, because it is too bureaucratic. Finally, there must be a vision of what can be achieved and a target to aim for.

The Cultural Recovery Project became the pawn of Haitian politics; in October 2012 a new government was installed and the ministers (and friends) who had collaborated with The Smithsonian no longer controlled the implementation of the Cultural Recovery Project. Its survival was now dependent on people The Smithsonian had not worked to build relationships with. Despite formally handing over the project to ISPAN, the Haitian government’s Cultural Preservation Agency, with the funding and equipment in place to establish a conservation centre, confusion over who was responsible for heritage led to nothing happening. Monique Rocourt, 2014 Director of ISPAN, said in an e-mail, “ISPAN’s mandate does not concern objects. Only buildings. MUPANAH is the only organism that deals with objects conservation.” Training by ICCROM now underpins the residual Cultural Recovery Project at Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince. Georges Nadar is hopeful about the legacy The Smithsonian left in Haiti, “They did start something that maybe in the future will progress and maybe we will be prepared for the next catastrophe.”