Saving Haiti’s Heritage

Last week, Haiti marked the second anniversary of the earthquake which devastated an already impoverished nation, resulting in an estimated 300,000 lives lost.    

The rebuilding effort has put enormous strains on a government, itself devastated both in terms of physical buildings and human talent in the disaster.  It has struggled to lead and coordinate a global army of government and non-government aid organizations.

At the same time, the character of the Haitian people known for their resilience, patience under suffering and independence has largely carried the country through this period.

Quisqueya University after the quake. Photo: JDickson

This strength of character is rooted deep in Haiti’s heritage, based on a prolonged, violent struggle against slavery, then for independence and, in this century, against brutal regimes.   African religious traditions combine with Christian missionary vestiges to forge a deeply spiritual people.  These elements of a unique heritage are depicted in a vast, rich and diverse body of visual and performing arts, of libraries and archives.  This art is a significant way of passing along to each generation their story as a nation and hence their identity.

The earthquake also struck these manifestations of Haitian identity.  Cathedrals collapsed along with their murals.  The national library, archives buildings and universities were destroyed.  Art in private collections was lost. 

Shortly after the earthquake struck, the image of postwar Iraq with looting and devastation of cultural and historic treasures mobilized an army of cultural experts around the globe.  Smithsonian museum officials took the lead in this country to raise awareness.  They were greeted with skepticism internationally as the heavy-handed Americans, but amidst the studies, conferences and promises, not much tangible was being done.  Someone had to take the lead, and fortunately the Smithsonian, with its international reputation for excellence, persevered. 

Not only did officials have to persevere internationally, but also against our own government.  Recovery and restoration of cultural buildings and artifacts was not a priority, U.S. leadership in diplomatic, military and aid offices indicated.  The Smithsonian led a coalition of concerned organizations to advance a relief and recovery effort for Haiti’s heritage.   They put together a smart plan which not only restored and saved murals, paintings and artifacts, but also trained Haitians to do this very work, giving them employment in a wrecked economy.

How do you put a price or a priority on one’s identity?  On one’s history?  It is easier to attach such concepts to people’s emergency needs of health, food and shelter.  Yet, what has really been important in seeing the nation through this crisis, is its heritage, its character of resilience and neighbor helping neighbor, in the absence of government or relief organization. 

An interesting footnote to the Haitian anniversary came this week here in Washington following a much milder tremor last summer along the east coast.  The only real damage to have taken place was sustained in the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument.    

We as a country could not see our way to using public resources to restore our most recognizable feature on our capital landscape.  This week, a billionaire equity magnate and lobbyist announced he was putting up the funding to fix the Washington Monument.  The new Episcopal Bishop is seeking to raise private funding to restore the cathedral.

The U.S. earthquake proved, perhaps even more starkly, the Haitian and Iraqi experiences that the manifestations of a people’s heritage suffer in such natural and man-made disasters, and yet efforts to protect, preserve and restore evidence of a people’s contributions to human history are held in such low esteem.

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