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Difference Maker

After the Haitian earthquake: saving priceless murals, artifacts, and other treasures

Cori Wegener is trying to save Haiti's treasures in a kind of Doctors Without Borders effort to preserve its "soul."

By Gary G. Yerkey/ Correspondent / March 7, 2011

Cori Wegener‘s work in Haiti centers on the removal, repair, and safe storage of three huge murals at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital, which somehow survived the devastating earthquake there last year. She was photographed in Washington, D.C.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Cori Wegener, an associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, talks of missions to rescue works of art and other "cultural property" in the wake of disasters as if they were warfare.

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She speaks of SWAT teams and military missions and emergency situations. And she knows what she is talking about.

Ms. Wegener, a combat veteran, has literally written the book on rescuing cultural treasures: a US Army training manual with the daunting title "GTA 41-01-002: Arts, Monuments, and Archives Guide." It refers to a country's churches, mosques, temples, museums, works of art, and archives as "its soul, its memory, and its meaning."

Yet too often, she says, outright plunder has followed an armed conflict or natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, leaving a country in danger of losing the "tangible representation of significant human events, beliefs, and values."

Now Wegener, a retired Army major, is doing something about it.

Her thinking on the issue, she says, is being shaped by her work as the international project coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution's Haiti Cultural Recovery Project – created largely at her initiative following the earthquake that struck that Caribbean island last year.

The project, whose aim is to recover, safeguard, and help restore Haitian works of art, artifacts, documents, and other cultural property, is being overseen by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for history, art, and culture.

But it was Wegener, Dr. Kurin says, who provided the spark for the project by calling a meeting of art professionals and US government officials less than a month after the Haitian earthquake to discuss what they could do to help.

The group decided to supplement the humanitarian aid going into Haiti with an aggressive program of "cultural aid."

An initial $275,000 was provided by The Broadway League, a national trade association of US commercial theaters. Another $90,000 was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museums and Library Science.

Then the United States Agency for International Development set aside another $2 million for the project. Private donors, notably Broadway producer Margo Lion, also stepped in with support.

Under an agreement with the Haitian government, work on the project will run through November. After that, it will be turned over to the Haitian people, Wegener says in an interview.

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