In 1861, an African-American bishop named James Theodore Holly gathered some 110 of his fellow countrymen and set sail from New Haven, Connecticut, bound for Haiti. A staunch abolitionist, Holly believed that the small island nation offered the potential for a life free from slavery and servitude. Once there, Holly founded a church, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Like Haiti itself, the church proved resilient: It burned down and was rebuilt—twice. From 1949 to 1951, local artists painted 14 murals on its walls, powerfully symbolizing and asserting the country’s identity and history by blending traditional Christian imagery with Haitian figures and cultural symbols.
On January 12, 2010, nearly 150 years after Holly left America, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. Death toll estimates range from 220,000 to 316,000 people. Injuries have been placed in the 300,000 range. 1.5 million people were displaced. But art, artifacts, and archives were also amid the rubble. When the earth’s shaking subsided, only three of the Holy Trinity Murals remained, and the walls that held them were barely standing.
Across the globe, natural disasters threaten not only individual people but the tangible art and artifacts that store our shared sense of identity and history. From Kathmandu to Lower Manhattan, organizations and individuals are drawing on 21st-century engineering and local expertise to safeguard the world’s heritage, which in the aftermath of calamity provides the resilience necessary to rebuild.
A number of Haitian conservators sprang into action just 24 hours after the earthquake. Stories abound of Haitians, finding solace in their shared history, singing through the first night of the disaster, afraid to re-enter their crumbling homes. In a school attached to the Holy Trinity Church some 250 students were killed. But following the natural disaster residents risked life and limb to get instruments out of the building and to safety so that they could be played again one day.
Still, Haiti is not a wealthy nation, and a global effort seemed necessary if repositories of national identity, like Holy Trinity, were to be preserved and salvaged. In March, Corine Wegener arrived on the island, part of the Smithsonian-led Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. “The first impression was just how incredibly devastated the city of Port-au-Prince was,” she says. “But the other impression was how important to Haitians their cultural heritage was, even amid the disaster of that earthquake.” Wegener, who founded the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, an international NGO that works to help protect cultural property during manmade and natural disasters, had been invited to participate in the Haitian project by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. Kurin, frustrated by bureaucratic intransigence, worked with Wegener and others, embarking on an impressive and successful endeavor to get the cultural recovery project off the ground, securing funding, and getting Haitian and American governmental approval.
Over the course of project’s 18-month lifespan roughly 4,500 paintings, 3,500 artifacts and sculptures, 17,000 rare books, and 500 works on paper received treatment and caretaking. Those figures include a painstaking restoration process of the three surviving murals at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. First, walls in danger of collapsing were stabilized until the murals could be removed and restored. Of equal significance to the impressive totals of objects saved was the training of roughly 150 Haitians in cultural preservation and restoration—a vital transfer of skills to a local population best positioned to help should another earthquake or hurricane strike.