In the aftermath of the major earthquake that struck the Port-au-Prince region of Haiti in 2010, the Smithsonian Institutional Haiti Cultural Recovery Project was formed in partnership with the government of Haiti. The partnership was established to assist local professionals in the recovery of their cultural heritage. The 2010 earthquake was the most destructive event in Haiti’s history and resulted in the collapse of museums and historic structures.
The project was launched in 2010 and continues to be highly successful. The efforts began by defining a plan for the partnership, both within the Haitian government and the cultural sector. Funding, provided from both public and private donors including AIC, exceeded three million dollars and was used in finding a facility that would house the 100,000 objects endangered as well as hiring a staff that worked to rehouse, document, and treat this collection.
The Cultural Recovery Center staff included local and international conservators, 54 international conservators and collection managers, and local assistants including 13 full time students. Ideal volunteers came with an open-minded attitude and willingness to help wherever needed.
Conservation priorities were established for the endangered collection, which included West and Central African tradition, Historic Haitian Art, and Contemporary Haitian Art. Some of the artifacts recovered include broken panels and paintings, crumpled and torn paper, broken sculptures, and built heritage in total collapse. Conservation and preservation professionals faced numerous challenges including working in a tropical climate, lack of written and photographic inventories, and a general absence of basic collections care practices. The country has faced decades long problems with discontinuous electricity and many museums didn’t have covered windows. The presenters emphasized that their goal was not to establish priorities within the collection, but to aid in stabilizing and treating the collection items that locals deemed a priority. This commendable attitude proved to be quite difficult at times, as many museums did not have their collections prioritized prior to the earthquake.
Some of the conservation activities included assessing and improving facilities, providing guidance and support during the stabilization of damaged collections, training volunteers and staff to process and stabilize a high volume of damaged works, and treating a selection of culturally important and badly damaged works. The treatment stage included the stabilization of 35,000 works from 20 institutions.
The presenters gave reasons for why stages of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project were successful or unsuccessful. Less successful situations arose when establishing an agreement with the National Bureau of Ethnology, negotiating with ISPAN for the construction of the conservation center on public property, and managing the transition from one government to another. In addition, the speakers stated that it was difficult to have the Haitian government to be proactive and take ownership of the project. Success was attributed to the core set of values shared between the six types of partners. When translated into the management of the situation, these principles lead to a mutually understanding, which ultimately lead to the success of the project.