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Photo by Alison Wright

Culture in Crisis

In 45 seconds, Haiti lost more than 160,000 people, thousands of buildings, and countless works of art when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation on January 12, 2010. 

Haitians were the first to respond, and once their welfare was safeguarded, they immediately began to assess and attempt to recover their cultural heritage. But they could not do it alone.

“There was a void. Smithsonian stepped up and said, ‘We have to do something. This is cultural heritage being destroyed in front of our eyes,’” says Richard Kurin, acting provost and under­secretary for museums and research at the Smithsonian Institution.

So the Smithsonian built a partnership with dozens of Haitian, American, and international organizations to form the Haiti Recovery Project. It raised more than $4 million and established a cultural recovery center in a former United Nations building in Port-au-Prince, relying heavily upon a Haitian- led staff supplemented by scores of Smithsonian staff and conservation volunteers.

 The on-the-ground effort resulted in saving and treating some 35,000 paintings, sculptures, historical artifacts, archival files, and rare books. And since 2010, approximately 150 Haitians have been trained in basic conservation and a smaller number in more advanced work, leading to a permanent Cultural Conservation Center at Haiti’s Quis­queya University. 

This effort in Haiti was the first real foray into saving collections under extreme circumstances for the Smithsonian, but it would not be the last.​


For many people, the Smithsonian conjures the image of a busload of sixth-graders being dropped off on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to spend the day touring the National Air and Space Museum or the National Museum of Natural History. 

But the Smithsonian is much more. It’s the world’s largest museum and research complex, comprising 19 national museums and galleries—in D.C. and New York City—20 libraries, and nine research centers, including the Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Tropical Research Institute in Panama. And, of course, the National Zoo. 

The Smithsonian also has activities in more than 145 countries and acts as an ambassador to build bridges of understanding among diverse communities of American and other world cultures.

In the summer of 2004, in recognition of Haiti’s 200th anniversary of independence, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a living exposition of cultural traditions of Haiti on the National Mall. 

More than 150 Haitian artists, musicians, craftspeople, storytellers, farmers, cooks, and merchants performed and demonstrated their traditions over a two-week period. Almost 1 million visitors attended. 

To organize the program, Smithsonian staff worked closely with key cultural leaders in Haiti and dozens of scholars and organizations. This formed strong professional ties and trusted friendships, which led to the Smithsonian’s involvement when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti.​


The Haiti Recovery Project proved to be a clear test of—and demonstrated need for—more collaboration, more partnerships, and more capacity to preserve cultural heritage when crisis strikes internationally. And after the successful effort in Haiti, the Smithsonian began responding to other crises.

In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Malian Ministry of Culture invited the Smithsonian to participate in a meeting of international experts to assess the damage to Mali’s cultural heritage by Islamic extremist groups. 

This led to the January 2014 program “Museums Facing Situations of Armed Conflict: A Regional Workshop for West African Museum Professionals” at the National Museum of Mali. The collaboration included UNESCO, the Malian Ministry of Culture, the International Council of Museums, and museum professionals from eight West African countries.

Then, when the Islamic Museum in Cairo, Egypt, was bombed in 2014, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art joined forces to assess the damage and assist in the recovery effort. Domestically, the Smithsonian engaged in a similar process in New York City in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy damaged collections in the New York metropolitan area. 

After the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, the Smithsonian conducted a mission to assess the needs for stabilization and security of cultural heritage in the immediate aftermath, to develop a national team of cultural heritage professionals capable of leading this critical early phase, to assist in on-the-ground implementation of first aid activities, and to address any other requests from Nepali cultural heritage professionals.

This assessment mission resulted in a proposal to Nepal’s Department of Archaeology to organize two First Aid to Nepal Cultural Heritage Recovery and Risk Reduction Workshops. One workshop was designed for collections and the other for stabilization of structures. 

Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian, worked with the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to  create the workshops to aid in cultural rescue and recovery efforts for the government, museum colleagues, police, and the army. 

A six-day workshop, hosted primarily at the National Museum of Nepal in Chhauni, focused on the immediate needs of the collections of the National Museum of Nepal and the Hanuman Dhoka Museum. Twenty staff members from museums and collecting institutions participated, addressing key issues, including planning and preparation, damage assessment, risk assessment, prioritization, security, evacuation, salvage and triage, and temporary storage.

The international team also provided an afternoon workshop for members of the Nepal Army, Armed Police, and regular police working as a task force at Hanuman Dhoka Palace and Museum in Kathmandu. This workshop, led by Wegener, included discussions about the experience of participants as first responders—both for the earthquake in general and for the cultural heritage of Nepal. The workshop gave participants an overview of safety, object handling techniques, and basic protective measures for collections.

Beyond natural disasters, the Smithsonian is also coming to the aid of institutions that are being targeted by ISIS and other extremist groups. The Smithsonian joined with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Day After Association, the U.S. State Department, the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, and others to help assess cultural damage in Iraq and Syria. They also trained conservators and cultural workers to help save endangered heritage. 

The Smithsonian’s ongoing partnership with the University of Delaware and the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage is ensuring the sustainability of the Erbil-based heritage conservation center. The center, which accommodates up to 28 students for coursework ranging from one to four weeks, covers various topics, such as archeological site preservation, stabilizing immovable heritage, and conservation treatment practicums.

The center is also providing assistance and training to minority religious groups, local governments, and national antiquities departments as they return to areas liberated from ISIS. Recent program participants from Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Erbil, and elsewhere across Iraq are establishing local crisis recovery units and sharing their knowledge through local training events.

To further assist these communities, the Smithsonian partnered with ICCROM and the Prince Claus Fund, located in the Netherlands, on the First Aid for Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC) course. The course has been held throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and was hosted for the first time in the United States this summer.

Twenty-one participants from 17 countries traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 30-day course in June 2016. Participants from Iraq, Syria, Georgia, and Nigeria offered personal perspectives on disaster and human conflict that enriched the experience for other participants from New Zealand, Seychelles, and Canada, who must also prepare for the potential impact of a natural disaster.

The course is aimed at strengthening the local responses that can have the greatest immediate impact in the recovery and rehabilitation of an affected community. The overall goal is to ensure that crisis-affected communities have the ability to participate in their own cultural recovery. 

While sharing their own experiences, participants were trained in careful emergency preparedness and engaged in practical exercises that cultivate good decision-making skills, which are directly applicable to protecting their cultural heritage throughout an unfolding crisis. 

Coursework included an emergency evacuation drill that necessitated documentation, packing, and removal of objects to a “safe zone,” as well as training in the damage assessment and emergency stabilization of structures. 

The course culminated in a broad—and challenging—final simulation where participants were taken to an area where a collection of objects, with contested heritage, had been involved in a complex emergency (the storage containers they were traveling in had been attacked and were damaged). Volunteers from the U.S. Army and Washington, D.C., emergency services served as role players with whom participants had to negotiate to remove and salvage the objects in a timely manner.

The immersive, focused coursework aims to instill the consistent and routine practice of readiness in anyone charged with safeguarding cultural heritage as the most effective means of preventing its destruction. Graduates are committed to offering similar training or projects for “cultural first-aiders” in their respective countries. 

During the closing ceremony of the FAC course, Lama Abboud, an architect from Syria, highlighted that one of core messages to take home was that “better communication leads to better achievement,” and that this course reminded her that “heritage [can] revive damaged cities and build peace.”​


Typically, international emergency responses are considered temporary, one-off engagements. The practice has yet to fully develop as a specialized field or practice that requires a body of knowledge and evidence-based analysis. 

In October 2015, the Smithsonian hosted a conference highlighting illustrative case studies that can assist in identifying the key attributes associated with the successful protection of cultural heritage during complex emergencies. Academics, first responders, and victims of catastrophes in Haiti, Iraq, Nepal, and Ukraine all spoke at the event. 

The conference was a step toward much-needed collaboration, and the opportunity for more connections to assist in saving endangered cultural heritage. 

The Conflict Culture Research Network—a developing research community to study the intersection of culture, heritage, and world conflict—was formally launched in June 2016 with partners from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In a recent report, Karima Bennoune, the United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, observed that it is now “crucial to understand why deliberate destruction of cultural heritage takes place.” This research network is attempting to address her urgent call.​


The Smithsonian is taking small steps—including capacity building on the home front. However, one of the struggles it faces is trying to align goals for international missions into an operational plan that also supports domestic response and internally-focused emergency preparedness.

The National Conference on Cultural Property Protection is one longstanding effort aimed at sharing best practices in heritage preservation, with an emphasis on security, facilities construction and management, and collections stewardship. 

For nearly four decades, the conference has helped to build a community of colleagues by annually uniting participants from large and small cultural organizations across the United States and abroad. Approximately 150 participants, new and seasoned professionals from the United States, Qatar, the Netherlands, Canada, and Great Britain, gathered for the conference in June 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Several members of the ASIS International Cultural Properties Council were in attendance, including Council Chair Robert Carotenuto, CPP, PCI, PSP, associate vice president of security at the New York Botanical Garden. 

Carotenuto notes that council and conference interests align on several topics, such as the changing museum workforce, meeting current threats of violence, understanding how cultural properties might be affected by unmanned aerial vehicles, and the challenges posed by social media.

“One of the council’s main goals is establishing working relationships with global cultural property security experts, and the Smithsonian conference offers a forum for meeting these individuals and collaborating on ideas,” Carotenuto says. 

Through the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection and other training, the Smithsonian has been active in cultural property protection for decades. It’s now striving to collaborate with others to enhance emergency preparedness and to build resilience within the cultural heritage community. 

Part of that effort includes replacing the private nonprofit Heritage Preservation in responding to disasters that endanger cultural heritage. For two decades, the Heritage Preservation led an Emergency Task Force comprising 42 federal agencies and national and regional service organizations that responded to disasters that threatened cultural property.

As a public-private partnership, the task force ensured that cultural institutions—including libraries, museums, archives, historic sites—and the public had the tools and resources to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. 

When the Heritage Preservation ceased operations in 2015, the Smithsonian stepped up to take its place as the task force cochair with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. The two organizations are now working on a new phase of development of the task force to help promote the protection of cultural resources at the state and federal levels in the United States.

“Cultural institutions across the United States had come to rely on the Heritage Emergency National Task Force for providing reliable and accurate preparedness tools and facilitating a coordinated response for cultural resources following major disasters,” says Lori Foley, administrator of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. “I’m extremely gratified—and relieved—that the Smithsonian was willing to fill the vacuum left by Heritage Preservation’s departure. As a founding member of the task force, the Smithsonian has assumed this new role without missing a beat.”  

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Amy L. Marino is a senior program officer at the Smithsonian. She contributes to the central planning and development of the Smithsonian’s vast collections of 138 million objects as well as to collections management, preservation, emergency planning, and related functions. Her career at the Smithsonian spans more than a dozen years, including five years as an analyst within Smithsonian’s security operation. ​