In Haiti, Rebuilding Art and Culture

by Valcy Etienne:

“Do you think I can take it?”

“It” was a Haitian mask that my father had bought on a recent trip to Haiti, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. As it hung in our living room, I knew the answer to my question — of course not — but I was reminded of the artistic expertise of the Haitian tradition.

After the earthquake in January 2010, Haiti, a country long revered for its creative works, focused on feeding, providing shelter, and rebuilding for its people. It is estimated that over 250,000 people were killed in the natural disaster, leaving over 1.5 million homeless and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. But the earthquake also devastated the country’s rich cultural heritage: countless landmarks, museums, galleries, churches, and workshops were damaged, which left the Caribbean country without much of the record of its art and its past.

Before the earthquake, Haiti had a flourishing arts scene; pictured above is a local arts market. (Kent Kanouse/Flickr Creative Commons)

This loss was the impetus for Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, and Corine Wegener, President of the U.S Committee of the Blue Shield, to travel to Port-Au-Prince to meet with the Haitian Minister of Culture along with staff from affected institutions. The resulting action of the assessment (which was developed with the input of conservators, engineers, and NAVY seismologists): the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, a joint effort whose mission is “to rescue, recover, safeguard and help restore Haitian artwork, artifacts, documents, media and architectural features damaged and endangered by the earthquake and its aftermath.”

The Smithsonian Institution, the Haitian Ministry of Culture and Communication, and the Haitian Presidential Commission for Reconstruction organize the project, in partnership with the U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.  During the summer of 2011, Mark Aronson, a conservator at the Yale Center for British Art, spent two weeks at the Cultural Recovery Center in Bourdon, Port-au-Prince. He described the experience as “eye-opening” though gut-wrenching; he felt at times guilty working on something typically seen as frivolous when there seemed to be more immediate needs to be addressed: “Art?  Is that a priority?  Do they have food in Port-Au-Prince?” he reflected.  “I was asked if I could take medicines to someone working in a hospital.  But I simply responded that I was already taking extra baggage with me in the form of glues, waxes, paint, varnish, and brushes.”

The project itself works to design courses and workshops to train Haitians in aspects of collections management, cultural materials preservation, and restoration. One of the main projects is in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a popular cathedral, and Centre d’Art, a famous art school in the Caribbean country. While there’s still progress to be made, the work that has been achieved thus far seems to be making an impact on daily life. Aronson remarked that “our news tends to report the disasters and crises and dark storm clouds, but what it doesn’t report is what’s normal and how many of these people are getting up and simply trying to create a new normal.” Restoring and recreating a nation’s cultural and historical richness is one way to work toward that “new normal.”

Valcy Etienne ’14 is in Berkeley College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on topics of popular culture and technology. Contact him at