In a world confronted with unspeakable human and cultural heritage loss to natural disaster, global climate change, and armed conflict, we extend our deepest sympathies to all those who have lost their lives or their homes as a result of catastrophic forces beyond their control.
“After a disaster of course the humanitarian response absolutely has to come first -- its number one. But people often make the mistake of assuming that there’s nothing that can be done for cultural heritage in that environment during the humanitarian assistance phase. And that’s just not true; you have a ‘golden hour’ to save cultural heritage just as you do human life. And you really can’t separate the cultural heritage from the people.” Cori Wegener, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, Smithsonian Institution, August 2015
When disaster threatens cultural heritage, whether due to earthquakes such as in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015), a hurricane in New York City (2012) or a political crisis in Mali (2013), members of our Smithsonian team responded. In Iraq and Syria, where ISIS and other actors are destroying local historic sites and artifacts, we are involved in the process of training locals in how to safeguard their past and protect it for the future.
The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, devastated its capital region, killing more than 200,000 and leaving over a million people homeless and a nation in ruins. Haiti’s museums, churches, art galleries, libraries, and archives were either destroyed, damaged, or endangered. Troves of historical books and documents, treasured artistic works and architectural features, and artifacts of great cultural significance were at risk of being lost forever. Read how members of our Smithsonian team helped with the 18-month recovery process.
For more information about the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, visit haiti.si.edu.
Since April 2013, the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI) Project has provided much needed emergency preservation work, conservation materials, and training to our Syrian and Iraqi colleagues in the hopes of salvaging damaged collections and sites. The SHOSI project aims to maintain networks of heritage professionals inside Syria and Iraq that can document site damage, undertake emergency site and object conservation, and discourage looting; support these networks with training, supplies, and expertise; and support and help with the development of specific interventions that enhance their ability to protect Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage, in large measure by empowering Iraqi and Syrians to preserve their own heritage. The SHOSI Project is a collaboration among the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Day After Association, and the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage.
After an earthquake struck near the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal in April 2015, killing more than 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000 while leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, the Smithsonian, in partnership with the Nepal Department of Archaeology, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), helped assemble a team of professionals that responded to the disaster and assisted in the recovery efforts by salvaging and rehousing vital collections.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern United States in September of 2012, resulting in at least 233 deaths and damage estimated over $70 billion, the Smithsonian provided conservation expertise and equipment to help New York City museums and performing arts institutions affected by the storm.
Smithsonian conservation experts assessed damage at the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, whose important collections of theatrical sets, costumes, and ephemera were flooded for several days. Working closely with staff and volunteers from the American Institute for Conservation, the materials were either removed and freeze dried or removed to a warehouse for air drying. The Smithsonian supported transportation of the paper collections and arranged for freeze drying (for mold mitigation) with Belfor USA on a pro bono basis. The collections have since been stabilized and returned to the Martha Graham Dance Company.
In 2012, armed Islamic extremist groups occupied northern Mali. Proponents of strict sharia law, these groups destroyed many Sufi religious shrines and heritage sites, labeling them as idolatrous. After a return to stability, the recommendations of a UNESCO expert conference led to the January 2014 workshop, “Museums Facing Situations of Armed Conflict: A Regional Workshop for West African Museum Professionals” at the National Museum of Mali in Bamako. Attended by museum professionals from eight West African countries, the week-long workshop was organized by the Mali Ministry of Culture and National Museum of Mali, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Smithsonian Institution, UNESCO Mali, and the French Ministry of Culture. Topics included disaster risk reduction and security for museums and collecting institutions, engaging communities in museum collecting and exhibition development, and ways museums can help their communities, including post-conflict reconciliation and resilience building.
Workshop leaders included Samuel Sidibe, Director, National Museum of Mali; Corine Wegener, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, Smithsonian Institution; Mary Jo Arnoldi, Anthropologist, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; Diana N’Diaye, Cultural Specialist, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Guy Tubiana, Museum Security Chief, French Ministry of Culture and Communication; and France Desmarais, Director of Programs and Development, International Council of Museums.
Egypt Museum of Islamic Art Joint Mission
On January 24, 2014, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, Egypt, was heavily damaged by a truck bomb directed at the police station directly across the street. In August 2014, staff from the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) organized a joint mission to the museum to learn the state of collections stabilization and conservation.
The mission consisted of Cori Wegener, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer at the Smithsonian and Chair, International Council of Museums Disaster Relief Task Force; Stephanie Hornbeck, conservation consultant to the Smithsonian and Director, Caryatid Conservation Services; Karen Stamm and Daniel Hausdorf, objects conservators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and France Desmarais, Director of Programs and Development, International Council of Museums. Over three days the team met with staff of the museum and learned more about their response and recovery after the bombing. They discussed conservation needs going forward and also met with Ministry of Antiquities staff to discuss future opportunities for collaboration among the three museum organizations.