Our Research

In keeping with the Smithsonian’s mission of “increasing and diffusing knowledge,” our researchers on cultural heritage and disasters strive to engage in scholarship, convene symposia on the topics of cultural heritage preservation, and make those findings accessible to you.

Ongoing Research Projects

Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) Internship Program

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative has a team of Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) interns whose project over the 2018-2019 academic year is “Assessing Damage to Cultural Heritage after Complex Emergencies” and “Creating a Data Visualization of the World’s Cultural Heritage Repositories at Risk.” These interns consolidate and clean data about cultural heritage repositories, conduct telephone surveys with cultural heritage institutions that experience damage from natural disasters and conflict, and code and map the geospatial distribution of at-risk cultural repositories. Through the course of this internship, they will gain:

  1. Skills in data acquisition and coding for digital humanities projects;
  2. Knowledge in disaster risk management;
  3. Experience in the field of cultural heritage; and
  4. Experience in conducting surveys.

Fall 2018

Hurricane Florence

In September 2018, within weeks following the start of the internship, Hurricane Florence caused catastrophic damage to cultural institutions in the Carolinas and Virginia. The interns began by assisting with response efforts in North Carolina. They promptly conducted outreach efforts by compiling data and contacting cultural institutions potentially affected by the disaster to survey damage and needs. Initially, they organized and prioritized datasets for North Carolina from Open Street Map (OSM), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Institute of Museum and Library Services, Museum Universe Datafile (IMLS), and North Carolina Arts Council (NCAC), based on storm surge warnings, accumulated precipitation, observed flooding, and wind speed.

Hurricane Florence Outreach Priority Map Created by Data Visualization Intern Spencer Polk, University of St. Thomas

The interns then worked to call over 375 cultural institutions in North Carolina checking on staff, buildings and collections, and conducting damage assessments where needed. They spoke with 76 organizations and left voicemails with 163. 44 organizations completed the damage assessment, reporting varying degrees of damage, and 6 institutions requested further assistance via the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team (CREST).

Throughout the outreach effort, activities were coordinated and information was shared with the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF), CREST, and the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ (FAIC) National Heritage Responders (NHR).

The interns also worked to call roughly 120 cultural institutions in South Carolina. They spoke with 25 organizations, 19 completed the damage assessment phone survey, and 4 requested further assistance from NHR.

Hurricane Michael

In response to Hurricane Michael in October 2018, the interns worked to prioritize 70 cultural institutions in the Florida panhandle from datasets of roughly 500 cultural institutions from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, last year’s University of Florida Disaster Relief Phone Bank (conducted after Hurricane Irma), and IMLS.

Hurricane Michael Outreach Priority Map Created by Data Visualization Intern Spencer Polk, University of St. Thomas

The blogs below are the interns’ reflections on their disaster response efforts:

Mapping Florence

Spencer Polk, University of St. Thomas

A week into my VSFS internship with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas. With my skills in geographical information systems (GIS), a software that uses layers of geographic data to produce spatial analysis and derivative maps, I was tasked with determining which cultural repositories in the Carolinas were most directly impacted by the hurricane in order to prioritize which organizations would be contacted first with a damage assessment phone survey.

While I had the GIS tools at my disposal, this challenge was something entirely new to me. To conceptualize a completely new process from scratch was both fun and intimidating. Accurately and efficiently determining areas most physically burdened by hazards that could potentially put cultural institutions at risk with limited access to data on the internet seemed almost impossible. Fortunately, as I dove into what information was available through sources such as NASA, NOAA, and the Global Disaster Alerting Coordination System, I was able to gather the data I needed. Thanks to satellites, computer models, river gauges placed across the country, and free access to this public data, geographic information on storm surge, wind speed, rainfall, and observed river flooding was readily available. I used this data to derive extreme, high, and moderate impact zones. Then, I mapped where the cultural institutions were by matching addresses from four different datasets to their corresponding geographical coordinates, a process called geocoding, which required lots of data cleaning to do properly and effectively. Once these locations were determined, I sorted them by location based on the three impact zones and merged them into one spreadsheet for other interns to begin the outreach process.

This process was very intensive, but rewarding. Watching the news as Hurricane Florence hit and its aftermath made me want to do my best work. I was inspired to make the most accurate model of the storm’s damage that I could, but I also knew that geographic uncertainty was a real factor; my map could not be perfect. The only people who could really know the damage of the storm was those affected, but I hope my work has played a part in getting support to them.

Source: NASA https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/hurricane-florence-viewed-from-the-space-station

Storytelling for Change

Dimple Rathod, Middlebury Institute of International Studies

Ever since moving to Monterey, California for graduate school in 2017, I thought I had left behind the unforgiving weather in the Sunshine State. Certain aspects I simply do not miss, one of them being the annual hurricane season. Unfortunately, each new hurricane season becomes more difficult due to climate change, and preparedness is the only aspect individuals can attempt to control when up against mother nature. This year’s hurricane season has already left a mark in history, with Hurricane Florence hitting the Carolinas and Hurricane Michael slamming Florida’s Panhandle. As a VSFS intern with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), I have actively participated in recovery efforts by providing resources to affected institutions or simply empathizing with the individuals who may have lost everything. Even though several hundred miles separate myself from the affected regions, no distance is too great to lend a helping hand to those who need it the most.

This proved true throughout the Hurricane Florence outreach process. Museums, planetariums, arboretums, and art galleries were just a few types of institutions affected by the deadly storm in both North and South Carolina. Prior to outreach efforts, I assisted in creating a platform for record keeping via Google Suite. A Google Form version of the outreach survey allowed interns to preserve the responses of the institutions on a Google Spreadsheet. Through the utilization of Google Voice, I was able to connect to numerous organizations with ease and administer our outreach survey.

Not only were the individuals willing to take the survey, but they also shared the lessons they learned with me and eagerly described the plans they had to pull themselves through the recovery process. On the other hand, I reached a handful of organizations that did not want to hear what I had to say and simply hung up. Instead of becoming angry towards the cold gesture, I reminded myself that it was not a personal attack. Instead of dwelling on the negative and letting the event deprive me of my joy, I decided to focus on the positive remarks I received throughout the outreach. Impactful stories including museums created by families in order to preserve history highlighted the importance of hope and restoration. With each encounter, I was able to carry away a feeling of satisfaction and determination for future assistance with any upcoming disasters.

Screenshot of Google Form Outreach Survey

My Visit to Southport, North Carolina

Gabriela McCain, University of California, Los Angeles

Over the past several weeks, I have been assisting with data compilation and contacting cultural sites and institutions in North Carolina potentially affected by Hurricane Florence. This has been both a challenging and incredibly rewarding experience for me.

Our first assignment was to organize and clean datasets of cultural institutions. I really enjoyed this assignment because it gave me a sense of the missions and goals of the organizations that I would be contacting later, and a greater appreciation for the important work that I am involved in through this internship. I was then assigned a list of priority institutions likely affected by the hurricane to call and assess for damage, and I was able to learn more about the rich history and various cultural institutions in North Carolina.

As a student born and raised in California, I did not know a lot about the history or heritage of areas like Southport in Brunswick County, North Carolina. It was an unexpected bonus to be able to learn so much about a new place and a new community through this research. I learned about the history of the region in a way that would not have been possible without researching the small museums, galleries, and historic sites that I was assigned.

I also really appreciated the opportunity to contact these local institutions. While cold calling was initially very nerve wracking, it became a valuable experience. I learned to overcome my anxiety and perform surveys professionally. Ultimately, it was very rewarding because many of the institutions I contacted were happy to receive my call. I had the opportunity to converse with people about their disaster experiences and offer my aid. During one such call, I spoke with a woman regarding a local historic site and was actually able to learn so much about the area of Southport, its historic significance, and the ways in which the community came together during the hurricane. This conversation was inspiring, and really gave me the opportunity to better understand the people I am helping and the heritage we are working to protect. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to offer tangible assistance, even though I am on the other side of the United States. It was also very humbling to hear the experience of communities affected by the hurricane, and it was inspiring to learn how these communities are coming together to assist each other and to be able to play a minor role in ensuring that they are safe and their cultural heritage is being protected during this difficult time.

Screenshot of My Assigned Region in North Carolina

“What’s in a [Culture]?”: Broadening Cultural Perspectives

Celia Carzoli, St. Mary's University

What has impressed me the most with my current experience as a VSFS intern with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative has been my expanded view of what qualifies as a cultural heritage institution and culture itself. I was a World Cultures teacher for 3 years before interning, and I felt I had a solid foundation as to what culture included and how it impacted communities. Well, lesson learned.

I was surprised that our calling lists were composed of diverse institutions ranging from large museums to choral groups. It was impactful to speak to such a wide variety of organizations from sites of giant kinetic sculptures made from farm equipment to food festivals that highlighted local cuisines.

Before my internship, I would not have recognized these as cultural heritage sites. To me, they were too new, and did not seem significant enough to matter. However, I gradually came to realize my limited view as to what communities value as indispensable parts of their culture and identity. How could I say what mattered for these communities and what didn’t? Individuals have created valuable experiences and memories regarding these places, events, and groups, and those would certainly make them worth protecting.

Culture is a social construct that helps us create and sustain a shared identity. Cultural traditions and contributions may begin from a single person, but they are also shared with others and passed down through generations. Culture continually evolves and is a reflection of the individuals who share it.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a disaster where these heritage sites are damaged or lost, for us to remember the value of these sites from the memories we made through them. How these events, groups, and organizations provide a means of connecting with others, particularly during precarious moments, makes them essential entities within society.

The Wilson’s Whirligig Park and Museum in North Carolina. The site is home to unique and giant “kinetic structures” that were created by Vollis Simpson from recycled industrial parts. Source: https://www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org/gallery/

My Work as a SCRI Intern

Mormon Hubbard, University of Baltimore

When I applied for the VSFS internship, I was not sure what to expect. I had no idea what organization I’d end up working for and what kind of work I would be doing. However, I feel that the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative was the perfect fit for me. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Affairs and Human Security, with a focus on international environmental policy. My work with SCRI is directly related to human security through the interactions I’ve had with organizations to assess how they and their staff have been personally affected by Hurricane Florence. Often times, when interviewing a representative from an organization that was drastically affected by a disaster, the conversation naturally shifts to their personal lives and the devastation that has occurred within their neighborhoods and their own homes. The conversations I’ve had with disaster affected organizations ties into human security and international environmental policy because natural disasters like Hurricane Florence directly affect the security and safety of individuals. Displacement and illness caused by natural disasters are directly related to human security. Completing this internship while pursuing this degree has given me a lot of perspective and insight into the realm of disaster relief and aid, which will be incredibly beneficial to my career in the future. Although I had some insight into the inner workings of the government both nationally and internationally in the aftermath of a disaster, gaining firsthand experience into the work that is done behind the scenes is an invaluable lesson that I will carry with me throughout my career.

Speaking with the museums and cultural institutions about the damage to the organizations put many things into perspective. For one, it has illustrated the importance of protecting our cultural institutions and artifacts in order to preserve human history and culture for future generations. It also puts into perspective the reality of climate change and what that means for the future of mankind. The disasters that have occurred so far this year, as well as the multiple disasters in 2017 that many communities have yet to recover from, have demonstrated that climate change is a serious, ongoing threat to humanity. The topic of cultural preservation is incredibly important right now as global warming continues to intensify. While we should focus our efforts on reducing carbon emissions and lowering the global average temperature, we also need to ensure that our cultural and historical sites are well protected and able to be preserved during disaster situations so that they may continue to exist for many centuries to come.

Overall, I am thankful for the opportunity given to me by the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. Having the chance to witness firsthand the damage to cultural institutions as a result of natural disasters, and working with the organizations to rectify that damage, has given me a great deal of insight into the realm of disaster outreach. The knowledge and experience I’ve gained from working with SCRI has altered my perspective on the importance and necessity of cultural preservation.

Source: BrianKhoury via Flickr

A Rewarding Opportunity

Cindy Peters, University of Nebraska Omaha

My VSFS internship with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative has been a rewarding opportunity so far. I have gotten the chance to work alongside some dedicated fellow interns and project managers. In particular, I have enjoyed speaking to many people from various parts of the country through our post-hurricane damage assessment outreach efforts. Although natural disasters affect communities in various ways, one thing that has always stood out the most is how people are willing to contribute information that can help other affected organizations. I think it’s wonderful to see other organizations pitch in to help preserve the uniqueness of their local community’s culture.

I’ve really enjoyed working to compile information to help locate cultural organizations in hurricane-affected regions. Oftentimes, verifying organizations is simple through a general online search. However, sometimes all we have to work with is the name of an organization and we must research and populate all the other information to be able to contact and assess damage to those institutions. It’s these rather obscure organizations that make the job challenging and interesting for me, but sometimes this task can be daunting. So much time is spent on research that it can sometimes seem impossible to find the necessary information. However, wanting to make a difference is what motivates me to keep trying to find any connection that can potentially help an organization. After spending quite some time on this research, my favorite part is seeing all the information I have found fall into place, and finally being able to reach out to the organization.

Although I truly enjoy the investigative aspect of my job, the most rewarding part for me is to hear people express gratitude that someone has contacted them. One of the most memorable conversations I’ve had so far was with a director of an African American history museum. She told me that their church, built by slaves and holding significant history and meaning to the community, had suffered significant damage as a result of Hurricane Florence. She was so thankful to hear that people cared about mending an important piece of cultural history for her community.

In this world where many of us a have tendency to keep to ourselves, it can make a difference to know that someone out there cares enough to reach out and make that human connection. I will always treasure my time as a VSFS intern with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, and the impact that my team’s work has on cultural preservation for various communities in the country. I look forward to continuing my work and connecting with other people.

Flooding over North Carolina. Source: North Carolina National Guard

Post-Hurricane Damage Assessments of Cultural Institutions in NC, SC, and FL

By Theo Symonds, Georgetown University

I am currently working with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative’s team of damage assessment interns, tasked with reaching out to cultural institutions that have been affected by natural disasters. As soon as our internships began in September, Hurricane Florence hit the coasts of North and South Carolina, and our outreach work began immediately. After procuring all of the necessary contact information for thousands of art galleries, museums, historical sites, and many other kinds of other cultural institutions that were in the hurricane’s path, we reached out with phone surveys to make a preliminary assessment of the damage that the responding institution had sustained. For the institutions that had sustained damage, and needed urgent assistance, we forwarded their survey responses and put them into contact with their respective local government and heritage organizations that could directly assist them. When Hurricane Michael hit Florida later in October, our experience in the previous month had helped us start outreach contacts in a far more organized and efficient manner.

While most of the institutions that we reached thankfully did not sustain serious damage, there were many that had sustained water damage to their facilities due to floods. Even over the phone, it was clear that these institution directors were personally weighted by the damage, and were always incredibly appreciative of our and the local governments’ assistance.

This experience has challenged a preconceived notion I held about heritage destruction — heritage destruction is not solely contingent on deliberate man-made acts such as terror or war, but is also prone to occur during natural disasters. Last year, when I interned with SCRI, I researched instances of cultural heritage destruction in North Africa, and almost all of them were a result of terrorism. After this year, I’ve seen that when it comes to the prevention of all instances of heritage destruction, it is imperative that natural disaster-stricken heritage is also protected with all available resources. For natural disasters, I’ve learned that the best course of action is preemptive protection, which requires considerable preparation. In North and South Carolina, many institutions that sustained damage had storage rooms where they could hold their collections for safekeeping — and is perhaps why most of the damage reported through our surveys were to the institutions’ facilities, instead of the collections. However, the damage to some institutions’ facilities had caused many of them to close their doors to the public in order to make repairs, and a few have still not reopened. But our surveys over the last few months have been instrumental in identifying exactly what resources were needed to assist with recovery across the states, and have provided local heritage organizations with vital specific details for planning recovery efforts and resources distribution to affected institutions.

“Flooding in North Carolina after Florence” (caption from wikimedia). Source: Voice of America, 15 September 2018; Wikimedia Commons

Back to top

Can't find the research that you are looking for? Please email us at culturalrescue@si.edu.

Past Research and Partnerships

See below information about past research projects conducted by the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and its partners.

Uniting to Save World Cultures

Uniting to Save World Cultures image

This 2015 conference aimed to highlight and disseminate illustrative case studies that can assist in identifying the key attributes associated with the successful protection of cultural heritage during complex emergencies.

learn more

Conflict Culture Research Network

Conflict Culture Research Network image

In 2014, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, SCRI, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched a project to study “conflict culture”—the heritage of communities attacked during periods of war or violence.

learn more