The Conservator vs. The Earthquake: Volunteering to preserve cultural heritage in Haiti

by Karen Zukor, Zukor Art Conservation, Oakland California

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In August of 2010, I went to Haiti as a volunteer conservator, to help salvage works of art damaged in the catastrophic earthquake in January of the same year. There had been an initial immediate response in the conservation community offering help, but it had seemed to me almost ridiculous in its premise – why repair art when people needed medical help, clean water and immediate shelter. But after much conversation with colleagues and others in the art world, it was clear that Haiti had a very rich cultural heritage worth saving. The country has a history of using art as an expression of celebration, commemoration and popular narrative.

The Haitian tradition of storytelling—including legend, myth and religion—has always found representation in the visual arts, and there was a profusion of painting, sculpture, and textiles reflecting that diversity of culture. If the country lost a large part of its patrimony because of extensive earthquake damage, it would also forfeit its considerable artistic legacy. I was curious to go see what could be salvaged, and wary about the chances of making a difference. The security of traveling in such a damaged and chaotic country was also a factor to consider; my friends were not happy with the idea, and my family even less so. What little I knew of Haitian art was compelling enough to make me say yes to the adventure.

A painting conservator from Los Angeles had also agreed to go, and she and I met in Miami early one morning to embark on this trip. We had been asked to bring a number of items with us, to be used in the labs (small tools, lamps, extension cords, batteries, sprayers, etc.), and so we set out with large duffel bags and minimal clothing. Room in our carry-ons was for the work we were about to do, not accessories. Mosquito nets and copious amounts of bug spray, however, were vital. 

The conservation work was sponsored by the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, in partnership with the Haitian government and a consortium of arts organizations. The project deployed conservators in various specialties for short periods to perform immediate stabilization for artwork that had been recovered.

 Our work was performed at the newly established Haitian Cultural Resource Center, a large building within a former U.N. food bank compound. The offices had been converted to conservation labs for paintings, paper, and objects: fairly well-equipped spaces large enough to perform basic tasks. Previous conservation teams had brought over tools and materials to allow for elemental repairs, but there were also adhesives, chemicals and pigments to perform more sophisticated work.  

The paper lab was large (but mostly empty); I was given a computer to keep track of all treatments and was asked to document the work with photographs. A camera never materialized, so I used my own digital device and took basic before and after images, identified with Post-it notes. There were a few tables, all at standing height, but only one chair. All of my procedures were subsequently done standing.

Adjacent to the work space was a locked room in which were kept the items to be repaired. It should be noted that the majority of salvaged items were paintings and sculpture, including many architectural elements from the main cathedral of Sainte Trinite which suffered extensive damage. The paper lab had nine works on paper and three large volumes.

No direction or prioritization was given; I was on my own. I chose the items that I thought needed the most immediate attention and then those that appealed to me artistically. One piece was clearly a modern reproduction so I set it aside. Eventually I completed seven works on paper: 3 watercolors and 4 drawings.

Not having any oversight was actually quite liberating, and being confined to the Centre kept me focused. From 8:30 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, there was only this very damaged art and the desire to do the best work possible with what was available. Of course, having lots of music on my shuffle helped enormously (and I could sing without annoying anyone).

The kinds of damage I encountered were the following: water stains, mold growth, warpage, media ‘bleeding,’ surface dirt, punctures and tears. I had blotters and sprayers to address the stains and warpage, erasers for the surface dirt and Japanese papers for mending. But the greater damage to all of these works was from previous matting and handling. Poor quality mats, extensive use of masking tape, notations in ball point pen (which bled terribly with moisture), and no knowledge of archival framing techniques had done far more harm to these pieces than the earthquake. That was a very disconcerting find; there was no familiarity with conservation or preservation. Proper storage and framing information was unavailable and good quality materials were scarce. None of these pieces would have suffered to the extent they did had they been appropriately matted and stored.

My work consisted of basic ‘triage’ for paper: dry cleaning of mold and dirt, removal of all tapes and hinges, discarding of acidic and mold-infested matting materials, humidification, flattening and repair to tears. All media was first tested, to determine degree of solubility; if possible, alcohol was sprayed on the front and back to deactivate mold spores and the art allowed to air-dry. When the media was stable, the art was washed in a ‘tray’ made of heavy Mylar stapled to form sides, and the object placed on a polyester sheet for support. Since there was no water filtration system, I used bottled drinking water modified with calcium hydroxide to adjust the pH.

A few drawings were damaged enough to warrant lining overall with Japanese paper. Wheat starch paste was cooked on a hot plate, and the lined drawings were stretched and dried on a Formica table top. Blotting paper was in very short supply, so it was rationed among the items to be addressed. Watercolors were lightly humidified with a sprayer and then weighted between polyester sheets and blotters under glass.

For additional weight, I ran up to the paintings lab and borrowed every heavy thing available (large containers of adhesive, etc.). It was basic and inventive at the same time; given the shortage of materials and the impulse to work quickly and efficiently, my colleague and I turned to one another for ideas, assistance and materials.

However, given the conditions outside of the Centre, we considered ourselves extremely fortunate to have electricity and running water. Food was ordered in, as we were not allowed to leave without our ‘guide’ (whose name was, truly, Mentor). In fact, security was so high that we were unable to  go anywhere on our own and thus the long workday was outlined in advance. After five days of intense work, the weekend arrived and we were confined to our house. The electricity went out and with it, the fans, the refrigerator and the lights. Only the gas stove still operated—but our food had spoiled with the heat! We shrugged and used our cell phone to call Mentor for a ride to the grocery store–again.

After nine days at the Centre, we wrote up condition and treatment reports on the completed artwork and lamented the fact that we had to leave. Both of us admittedly felt stymied in our inability to address all the pieces that needed some stabilization. At the same time, we were proud of what we had accomplished. There was the issue of not having access to specialized equipment that could have produced better results. A suction table, for example, would have helped with stain removal on water soluble items, and some hydrogen peroxide would have greatly reduced the more stubborn discolorations. But we were asked to stabilize these artworks and leave the ‘aesthetic integration’ to a later time. When I had the opportunity, however, I did use my watercolors to paint in small areas of missing pigment within the image, and filled some paper losses with toned Japanese mulberry of various thicknesses.

The program of deploying conservators has received enough funding to continue for another year. Part of the endeavor is to train Haitians in methods of art conservation, collections care and archival storage.

This is, of course, the most essential aspect of the recovery. I was asked if I wanted to return, and just this week agreed to do so. There is an almost endless amount of work to do and the country deserves all the aid and support it can get. It never felt dangerous and the people were wonderful. I can’t wait to return.


Published by The Gold Leaf: The Journal of the Hand Bookbinders of California, Spring 2011  

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