Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

By Alec Story, University of Pittsburgh

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative VSFS internship has been both an incredibly rewarding and thoroughly challenging experience. So far, I have had the opportunity to work as part of a diverse team of students and mentors to collect data on cultural heritage repositories throughout Florida, the Carolinas, and Texas. These repositories include of course museums and galleries, but also botanical gardens, libraries, zoos, aquariums, historic houses, and historical societies.

The team began in Fall by recording proper location and contact information for repositories in Florida due to the then impending threat of Hurricane Dorian. Although Dorian’s effects in the continental US were minimal, having this information, especially on states within Hurricane Alley, is of critical importance when preparing for future disasters. Proper preparation could make response times to damaged artifacts that much quicker, allowing significantly more time to react and safeguard America’s cultural heritage.

When performing the research and data entry itself, large swaths of data are often missing, forcing our team into somewhat of a detective role. Tracking down employees, phone numbers, and addresses for hundreds of institutions is often daunting, but finding all of the necessary information for a small, obscure institution is an extremely gratifying experience. It is rewarding to see all of the database “blanks” turn into filled out lists that very well may help institutions during future disasters.

I have learned more than I would have thought possible from this internship. My experience with the VSFS program has opened my eyes to the ephemeral nature of cultural heritage and the importance of prolonging it for future generations. I have also been reminded the extent to which technology has acted as an aid in research and data compilation. Computer technology has allowed this internship to take place, allowed us to better prepare for natural and manmade disasters, and allowed the Smithsonian to more successfully safeguard America’s artistic, historic, and biological treasures.

USA map

Each dot on this map represents one of the country’s 9,000 public libraries and 35,000 museums.
Source: Washington D.C.’s Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).