The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archives Conservation in Haiti, Part 1
This is the first of two posts on our conservators’ work with the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery project. This post is a slightly modified excerpt from the forthcoming publication by Dr. Richard Kurin, Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery After the Earthquake. Translated as: Sovtaj Patrimwàn Kiltirèl Ayiti: Prezève kilti aprè tranblemann tè a (Haitian Kreyol) and Sauvetage du Patrimoine d’Haïti: préservation de la Culture après le séisme (French), Smithsonian Institution: 2011. (ISBN-13 9780966552003).
In 2011, I traveled to Haiti, as have other conservation experts, to assist with the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery project, which is working to rescue, recover, safeguard, and help restore Haitian artwork, artifacts, documents, media, and architectural features damaged and endangered by the earthquake. My primary work focused on the preservation of 19th century historic collections of the Archives Nationales d’Haïti (ANH).
The materials consisted of unique manuscript civil documents—records of births, marriages, divorces, deaths, customs records, and newspapers—both bound and in wrapped bundles. I was asked to coordinate the general care and training for handling documents in advance of a planned air-conditioning retrofit of the archives’ collections storage space. I also surveyed the overall environmental and space needs.
Given the many challenges of this transition, including the financial and environmental costs of maintaining a generator fueled air-conditioning system, I met with the architect-engineers from the Centre de Sauvetage des Biens Culturels (CSBC)—Haiti’s Cultural Recovery Center—to explore the feasibility of a more sustainable on-demand dehumidification and exhaust system for the already significantly aged materials. I shared recent conservation research that acknowledges real-world conditions and strategies versus “ivory tower” theory, which was met with favor by our Haitian colleagues, who are familiar with shortages of budget, supply, and systemic maintenance.
Another fun personal challenge included my surprise guest turn as a paintings conservator documenting and dusting two paintings by Domerçant found in the stacks at the ANH, and later, while training interns and staff at the CSBC on the documentation and damage assessment of an extremely damaged painting on Masonite by Stivenson Magloire, a well-known Haitian artist who was assasinated on the streets of Port-au-Prince in 1994.* This latter work has a moving history, as it was completed on the eve of Haitian independence on Duvalier’s election just a few weeks before Magloire's death, and for me to help bring it back together from fragments (as pictured in the time lapse video below) guided by the eyes of the owner, a friend of the artist, was very rewarding.
When asked about the most significant aspect of my experience in Haiti, the word that immediately comes to mind is respect. I was happy to both give and earn respect from my Haitian colleagues at the Cultural Recovery Center and the ANH during discussions, training, and dusty, hot, hands-on hard work—all of which exercised my ability to rapidly adapt and offer solutions to diverse needs. One of my long-term recommendations to the group was to include all the staff—including temporary laborers, technicians, and the office staff—in project discussions. That way, everyone involved can understand the mission and goals, and hopefully appreciate and respect the value of each others’ work. It also gives people respect for the collections themselves, and underlines their value to the Haitian people, and to academics, researchers, and journalists who will use the records to contribute to Haiti’s own history and future.
*This sentence corrects an error of artists’ attribution in the forthcoming publication.