In the Absence of Disaster

By Patrick Harris, Lund University

As a VSFS intern with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), I’ve worked with a small group of students to compile contact information for state-specific cultural institutions in the event of future natural disasters. As of fall semester, our secondary function of contacting institutions impacted by natural disasters—in order to assess damage—has not been initiated. With the exception of Hurricane Dorian, the past four months have been relatively quiet for domestic cultural institutions in the field of weather-related emergencies.

The absence of disaster assessment responsibilities has allowed for more time to research cultural institutions, including their history and impact on the communities they serve. An unprecedented takeaway from this experience has been the broad definition of cultural heritage that these lists represent. Examples include a Florida seabird sanctuary, a Nebraska prison library, and a Texas zoological society. The spectrum of cultural institutions included in this project highlights the degree of difficulty assumed by SCRI in its preservation and damage response efforts.

The diversity of cultural institutions included in this project is, unfortunately, undercut by the lack of accessible public information. For the most part, a considerable portion of time on this project has been invested in combing through public records, searching for physical addresses, contact information, personnel, and relevant social media accounts. Because a significant number of these institutions are modestly-funded passion projects, a thorough search can require hours of effort and still result in a dead-end. Without the collaborative input from my team members, I would not have been able to complete our previous four assignments.

In the end, my experience with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative has been incredibly positive. Although my field of academic study is focused on European historical consciousness, I’ve benefitted from the exposure to cultural institutions that document these developments from an adjacent American perspective. I’m curious to see how the project will continue to progress in the coming months.

Hurricane satellite image

Hurricane Dorian at peak intensity before making landfall in The Bahamas.
Source: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration