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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."

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Central to the project will be the removal, repair, and safe storage of three huge murals at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital. They somehow survived the earthquake, which nearly leveled the church.

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The murals were painted in the late 1940s and early '50s by three of Haiti's most famous artists: Philomé Obin ("The Last Supper"), Castera Bazile ("Baptism of Our Lord"), and Préfète Duffaut ("Native Street Procession"). Eleven other murals in the church were damaged beyond repair.

Work on removing the murals for eventual installation in a new church began in January and is expected to take another two months or so. The restoration work will be carried out at a three-story building in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince previously occupied by the United Nations Development Program and now dubbed the Haiti Cultural Recovery Center.

Stephanie Hornbeck, a retired Smithsonian conservator who is serving as chief conservator for the project, told a recent visitor to the center that tens of thousands of objects rescued from the quake need to be restored. These include thousands of paintings and sculptures from the Musée d'Art Nader in Pétionville, a private museum that housed works by 20th-century Haitian masters such as Duffaut and Hector Hyppolite.

Also flattened in the earthquake was the Centre d'Art, where many of those same masters were trained and which contained thousands of paintings now in need of restoration.

Wegener is also president of the US Committee of the Blue Shield, which considers itself the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. It provides assistance to countries whose cultural heritage has been threatened by disaster.

She was deployed to Iraq in 2003 to help revive the National Museum and saw there firsthand how a quicker response could have saved much more art. She's determined to see that that will not happen in Haiti.

"What we're talking about is an emergency response to a cultural disaster," Wegener says. She hopes to put together an international institution to save works of art modeled on Doctors Without Borders that would be ready – bags packed and money in the bank – to move out at a moment's notice, she says.

"We want to be able to respond quickly to the next disaster," she says. "We're working toward that goal."

It is shortsighted to focus only on providing humanitarian assistance while ignoring the need to also restore a nation's cultural heritage, she says.

"Clearly, it is an essential part of any country's overall recovery," she says.

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