- Associated Press - Monday, July 26, 2010

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — It is slow, deliberate, frustrating, yet fulfilling work trying to preserve a people’s culture.

Vicki Lee, senior conservator at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, already has made two trips with teams of experts trying to mend Haiti’s cultural heritage following the devastating January earthquake, and is itching to return.

“It’s so sad,” she said in an interview at her office off Rowe Boulevard after returning from the stricken island nation about two weeks ago. “There is so much work to do. We need thousands more people to do it.”

On the other hand, the Chesapeake Beach resident and her colleagues — who have made trips to Haiti under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Institute for Conservation’s Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) — see cause for hope.

“I think the chances for recovery are quite good, but it will take a lot of time,” said Hugh Shockey, an object conservator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum who worked on the same team as Lee.

“To be quite honest, what gives me the most amount of hope is that the Haitians were recovering materials from the rubble rather than just throwing them out,” Mr. Shockey said. “They saved what they could. If I am going to put the pieces back together, I have to have the pieces.”

He said it is evident the Haitian people clearly value their cultural material.

“It could have all been scooped up by a bulldozer and sent on a truck to be dumped,” Mr. Shockey said.


In ruins

On the team’s initial visit, they found public and private museums in ruins, Ms. Lee said. Stacks and stacks of paintings had been removed from their frames and stretchers.

In the rubble they noticed pieces of paintings, sculptures, documents, books.

The Musee d’Art Nader, a private museum in Port-au-Prince that housed some 12,000 paintings and other art, was flattened. In it was the largest collection of Haitian masters such as Hector Hyppolite.

Fortunately, the basement was intact. Hundreds of paintings that were stored there were saved, and hundreds more were pulled from the rubble above.

Lee got to work with another colleague to preserve a Hyppolite. It is outside her area of expertise in document and book preservation, but that is where AIC-CERT shined.

The organization cross-trained its 60 rapid-response team members so all would know what to do with a variety of cultural artifacts. It’s like a triage team: They come into an area and can perform immediate tasks to stabilize cultural treasures.

“We do what we can and leave the artifact in a condition where, later on, more conservation work can be done,” Ms. Lee said.

The team is now organized in such a way that when one group of conservators leaves, another takes its place. They have set up a restoration center in Port-au-Prince.

There, paintings, documents and other treasures will be repaired and stored until a larger, centrally located storage facility is put together.


Being resourceful

Ms. Lee first went in May, then returned last month. On her second trip, the headquarters was up and running and the teams were able to work on materials brought to them.

One item fell right into Lee’s expertise: preserving a document.

It was a military record of Gen. Alexandre Petion, son of a wealthy French aristocrat and a black Haitian mother. He was trained in France and fought with the French to put down rebellions in Haiti. But then, in 1803, he turned to fight for independence, eventually becoming the second president of a free Haiti.

The document suffered water and other damage. Ms. Lee painstakingly stabilized the document over a couple of days, but it wasn’t easy. The team brought some supplies with them, but had to secure other materials to do the job.

“We went all over the place,” Ms. Lee said. “We could not find acetone and finally wiped out a store’s supply of nail polish remover.”

Another task was to secure a photo tray large enough to bathe the document and other artifacts in.

“I found a large planter that came with a basin,” she said. “They would not sell me the basin only. So I made my own — Styrofoam from a shipping box lined with plastic sheeting and held together with bamboo skewers. … It worked.”

It will likely take more MacGyver-like ingenuity to complete the preservation work in the years ahead, but a major component of the AIC-CERT mission is to train Haitians to do the job.

Currently, staff members from two Haitian museums are being trained.

“The theory is, if we train people already invested in an institution, the won’t just take the training and leave the country,” said Ms. Lee, who has worked at the Maryland Archives since 2000.

She said she intends to take her skills back to Haiti to preserve and teach just as soon as she can.

“I have already asked to go back,” she said.


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