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The Haitian art world suffered great losses in the earthquake, with museums and galleries extensively damaged — including Port-au-Prince’s main art musuem, the Centre d’Art. A major recovery project is underway, headed by the Smithsonian and the Haitian government, to recover and restore as much of the artwork as possible. We’ll talk to American and Haitian officials working on the project.
- Richard Kurin Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Smithsonian
- Olsen Jean Julien Project Manager for the Cultural Recovery Project and Former Minister of Culture, Haiti
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince also destroyed a big part of the country's cultural heritage, including art and artifacts dating back more than five centuries. Haiti's main art museum, the Centre d'Art, collapsed, as did many private institutions and churches that house the country's art collections and archives. A lot of the artifacts are lost, crushed on the piles of rubble. And while thousands of pieces were rescued, without proper facilities to store them, the tropical heat and humidity damage them even further. Now, a team of international cultural organizations is working with the Haitian government to assess and restore the pieces that can be saved. Joining me now from studios at WAMU 88.5 in Washington is Olsen Jean Julien, project manager for the Cultural Recovery Project and the former minister of culture for Haiti. Olsen Jean Julien, thank you for joining us.
MR. OLSEN JEAN JULIENHi, Kojo. I'm in Washington. It's a pleasure to know that you're in Haiti.
NNAMDIThank you again for joining us. Richard Kurin is also in our studios in Washington. He is the undersecretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian. Richard Kurin, good to talk to you again.
MR. RICHARD KURINGood to hear from you, Kojo.
NNAMDIOlsen, like the rest of the dame in Port-au-Prince, it's hard to get a sense of the scope of the losses to the art world. What would you see the impact has been?
JULIENOn the impact, we can say it's terrible. It's -- we have identified at least 30 cultural organization who own collections and most of them have the building damage, most of them have the -- like artworks in boxes. We got a lot of books, a lot of culture materials and you can -- you're in Port-au-Prince now, you can see the collection of the Centre of Art seating in sea containers for, like, eight months. That's the same thing for, like, Nader Museum and the same thing for Museum of Art and the same thing for National Bureau of Ethnology. It's that many, many, many institution have the collection very damaged.
NNAMDIRichard Kurin, you have said that damage would be as if in the U.S. every Smithsonian Museum, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the White House all collapsed?
KURINIt's the equivalent to Haiti. I mean, Haiti is, you know, has a tremendously rich cultural heritage. It's a country that was the second in the hemisphere to achieve independence, to abolish slavery, rich documentation, very rich archives, wonderful, creative life and pretty much it's on the rubble. And culture means so much to Haiti, it's really defined the identity of the people, it's given people dignity. And after the earthquake, as we all watched on TV, those of us who weren't in Haiti, seen people sing through the night, taking refuge in their culture, who they were. It gave people resilience to survive. So we know that culture is important just like it is. You know, look, if there was a disaster in Washington and all our buildings collapsed, first thing of course, get people out, save who we can, deal with that. But at some point, we'd say, you know, the "Declaration of Independence" is in the rubble, that portrait of George Washington is in the rubble, the "Star-Spangled Banner" is in the rubble, it's important to us to Americans to who we are and we'd probably say, let's pull it out and let's preserve it.
NNAMDIWe sent reporter Sabri Ben-Achour to take a look at the restoration project that's being sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum. Here's his report.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOURHaiti's Centre d'Art was at the core of Haitian artistic life. It was where in the '40s, Haitian high art stopped trying to imitate French schools and started trying to take on a life of its own. The building housed thousands of paintings. And during the earthquake, it collapsed. Maris Debousier (sp?) had just left work there when the quake hit.
MS. MARIS DEBOUSIERWhat I think at this time was to have the paintings safe. That was my first reaction -- to save the paintings.
BEN-ACHOURWhat did you do? How did you save them?
DEBOUSIERI saved them with another employee. We have a team, about eight persons, too. I work, too, on the rubbles to have them out.
BEN-ACHOURThey ended up here in the courtyard of the Smithsonian-sponsored Haitian Cultural Recovery center.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1That's a container of...
1...painting, many painting.
BEN-ACHOUR...for this whole truck here.
1The two on.
BEN-ACHOURThese two semis, these two semis that are parked in the courtyard here, they're full of paintings.
1Painting. Painting and sculpture.
BEN-ACHOURInside, Magdalena Carmelita Douby oversees their restoration and that of thousands of other artifacts pulled from the rubble of galleries and museums. Can you show us how it works, how do you preserve them? Here. What is she doing here?
MAGDALENA CARMELITA DOUBYOh, she is making treatment for painting.
MS. ANNE O'CONNORI'm a paintings conservator from the U.S. that's come down with the Smithsonian and the American Institute for Conservation.
BEN-ACHOURWhat's your name?
O'CONNORAnne O'Connor. (sp?) And I'm -- right now I'm treating this painting by Bazile.
BEN-ACHOURBazile was a painter from the '40s who pioneered a stylized cartoon-like aesthetic that uses a knife as a brush. In this painting, a Haitian farmer is trying to wrangle an ox.
O'CONNORAnd it has, obviously, these large tears and punctures that have gone right through. So I'm in the process of kind of relaxing the support so that it can flatten, so those edges can realign. And then we can do fills and in-painting so that it won't be quite so obvious, the damage.
BEN-ACHOURMany of the images here are inspired by Haiti's two major spiritual traditions -- Catholicism and Voodoo. Some images, like this one of a pointillist bishop doing battle with snakes, have both. And we can't help but notice all the mermaids.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2Again, this is a -- in Voodoo, this is the queen of the sea. Yeah.
BEN-ACHOURDo people sort of worship that or...
BEN-ACHOURSome images are on loose canvas, others even on cardboard. On many, mold has set in, and they'll have to be fumigated.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3We have an artistic blood. (laugh) Yeah. Where you go, you can see painting against the sculpture. We have artist people.
BEN-ACHOURThere are also archival documents. The center just restored the 200-year-old CV of Haiti's first president. And then Douby unlocks another room in the center. We have here -- what we're looking at are four tables covered with...
BEN-ACHOURFragment. Right, rubble.
DOUBYYeah, from rubble and from the mural.
BEN-ACHOURAnd each side has -- it's like a puzzle piece. Each side, I see, it's brightly colored. What's this mural? Where was it?
DOUBYThis mural was the mural at all the church cathedral. We're gonna have a mural conservator from the U.S. to treat the mural and put it -- put the rubble together.
BEN-ACHOURWell, it's -- it looks like an impossible task.
DOUBY(laugh) It's possible. It's possible. They're gonna put it together. Yeah. Like a puzzle. After the earthquake, I can tell that it's what we have in Haiti. We have our culture, and so we preserve our culture and rebuild the country.
BEN-ACHOURI'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
NNAMDIWAMU 88.5 reporter Sabri Ben-Achour. We're talking with Olsen Jean Julien, project manager for the Cultural Recovery Project and the former minister of culture for Haiti, and Richard Kurin, undersecretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian. Richard Kurin, we heard from our reporter a little about the work going in this recovery project. And from what I understand, saving the work from the rubble was just the first step. Storing it in a tropical climate is a whole different problem.
KURINWell, we have to contend with mold, which is prevalent. And mold, once it takes hold, is almost impossible to get rid of. So you really need to clean it off, stabilize the work and get it into climate-controlled conditions. We've also had to deal with termites, with silverfish, with a whole bunch of things that arise in such situations. We're doing some restoration. But I think the biggest contribution that speaks of the piece is really training of Haitians. This is gonna be a generational-long activity. And while the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Arts, Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Service, President's Committee on Arts and Humanities, a whole of group of people have gotten together for this project working with the Haitians, ultimately it is Haitians that are gonna really preserve Haitian cultural heritage.
NNAMDIOlsen Jean Julien, it is my understanding that the project that is training Haitians -- that are training Haitians not as conservators but to do collections care and stabilization. Could you explain what that means?
JULIENYeah. The -- when we look at the situation after the earthquake, it's -- we thought it was not really a problem of the earthquake at first on -- when you first look at it. So we can see that there is a conservation problem. The condition of the conservation is well and good before the earthquake. So the ways -- things -- the right storage, the temperature, the level of humidity in the rooms. So you got a collection care problem here.
JULIENSo what we thought we should do first is to train people to better manage the collection, to better take care of the collection because it doesn't mean anything that you're restarting and you put them in the same condition without proper management. So we thought that the first thing to do is to train a bunch of people from different cultural institution to better manage collection. That's why we associate them ourselves with ICCROM, which is our UNESCO organization with Smithsonian conservators, with Canadian Institute of Conservation.
JULIENSo we put together a training session for -- that was for 25 people, but we got, really, 28 people participating at it. So to train people to better manage the collection. So we put people from like a fire department. We got people from, like, MINUSTAH helping. We got other museum professionals in Haiti. So we tried to put all the knowledge we can have available at the service of the cultural matters. So -- and it was a wonderful experience where we got like a, you know, Japanese engineers for MINUSTAH working together with, like, a cultural professional in Haiti trying to save cultural matter. That was a wonderful experience.
KURINAnd I think, Kojo, Olsen had a great ideas that, you know, in terms of the training and apprenticeships, to work with people that were already working with cultural institutions in Haiti. So that is rather than training a new cadre of people who weren't associated with the various galleries, museums, archives, libraries and collections, train those employees who've been working in those institutions who have a stake in them so they can up their skills. Now, again, the first impulse has been in terms of, you know, collection management and stabilization. We will be doing apprenticeships with all sorts of people through the center...
KURIN...over the next year, where we'll have, you know, a dozen or so or more people working day to day with conservators from the Smithsonian, from various museums, cultural centers around the world so that on a day-to-day basis, they could get a hands-on understanding of how really to conserve pieces and even restore them.
NNAMDIRichard Kurin, and what about work that has had structural damage?
KURINWell, that's a big one. You know, I'm a Jewish kid from Queens. And when I went to Haiti after the earthquake and stood in that national cathedral, I cried. I mean, here you have this magnificent structure and it looked like a bomb had dropped on it. And you can't be human and not be touched by what that meant. That was bombing people's spiritual life, spiritual center.
KURINAnd so we're there, there was an interesting guy, Haitian American, from New York who works on churches and synagogues in New York on stained glass who went down to Port-au-Prince just last week, worked with Olsen and others to figure out how we're gonna save the stained glass in the national cathedral. Seemly, the Episcopal Church founded as result of Americans who were anti-slavery, abolitionist Americans, who went to Haiti, worked with Haitian communities. Very important, 14 murals painted in the Episcopal Church, Holy Trinity. Only three -- parts of three murals remain.
KURINYeah. And what we're doing there is, you know, they were rained on. Patrick Delatour, a great -- another Haitian who worked with us at the Smithsonian, went out, built stuff to stabilize and protect it from the rain, prevent the walls from caving down. Again, another cathedral which looks like a bomb fell on it. Right now, what we're trying to do, we've studied murals and actually, fragments of the murals are now at the Smithsonian's most advanced lab because we're testing the pieces of these painted murals. These were life-sized murals that showed, really, how Haitian masters had interpreted the coming of Christianity to Haiti and the Haitianisation of Christianity.
KURINThey were national treasure in Haiti. We're gonna try to take down those murals. We're testing the paints and the adhesives and so on. This is like taking down a vertical -- imagine a vertical jigsaw puzzle. And we're gonna have to chip that mural off the wall because the substrate will collapse, eventually, and we need to preserve that. So we have some of the finest conservators in the world that will work hand in glove with Haitians in terms of training and as assistance working to basically take down those murals, stabilize them. And then, when the Episcopal community rebuilds that cathedral, those murals, fragments of them, will be reinstalled in some way.
KURINAnd, you know, it's a great work. You know, usually we think of museums as kind of abstracting from culture and it's the remains of culture. But here, I think we've learned that culture is a living thing in Haiti. And if we can use our skills as museum and conservation and collection professionals to encourage the living culture, that's good work.
NNAMDIOlsen, in about the minute or so we have left, the Ministry of Culture and the President's Commission for Reconstruction are leading the cultural recovery effort. Who else is involved?
JULIENThere's the Minister of Culture, though, but through the Ministry of Culture we got five specialized agency, like the nation -- National Institute for Heritage, there's a National Bureau of Technology, there's a National Archive, the National Library and the Penntown Museum. That's Haiti's public institution for culture heritage. But we got some other, like we are working with 14 institutions and many of them are private. We got FOCAL who is supporting us. Now, FOCAL is working -- really supported the project.
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