Haiti Struggles to Save Cultural Property and Historic Buildings

Posted on February 11, 2010


Beyond the shocking loss of lives and destruction of homes, the recent earthquake in Haiti has also endangered many culturally significant and historic buildings.  A summary of those articles pertinent to the subject follows.

After sending experts to assess the damage to Haiti’s cultural property, UNESCO urged a ban on trading in Haitian artifacts, “so that we don’t find these objects in Christie’s tomorrow.”  In the Cultural Property Observer, Peter Tompa expressed concern over the imprecise language used in the ban request because, taken literally, it would result in Haitians not being able to sell any artwork at all, for any purpose.  UNESCO explained it is motivated by the cultural heritage disaster which emerged in post-war Iraq.

As to sites, UNESCO has expressed particular concern over the presidential palace and cathedral in Port-au-Prince, and the buildings in Jacmel, a 17th century French colonial town that was in the tentative process of receiving World Hertiage status.  There are reports of extensive damage to the historic buildings in Jacmel.  Some have voiced concern that historic buildings are slated to be demolished without sufficient investigation into whether they can be salvaged.

The only official World Heritage Site in Haiti, the Citadel (also called the Natural History Park), appears to have been spared by the earthquake.

Of particular concern to Haitian historians are two libraries in downtown Port-au-Prince.  The main archivist at La Bibliothèque Haitienne des Pères du Saint-Esprit mounted a private expedition into the crumbling structure to save letters, manuscripts, and books from from 18th to 20th centuries.  This collection includes documents critical to the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791 and lasted 13 years.  There are also concerns about the library at the seminary Les Freres de l’Instruction Chretienne, which has a politically and historically significant collection.

Outside of Haiti, the Dutch Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development has indicated that it is eager to get into Haiti and begin work protecting cultural treasures.  “We are not able to provide a financial estimate of the damage, but it’s already clear that all of the country’s cultural institutes and buildings have been severely damaged,” stated Els van der Plas, Director of the Prince Claus Fund.

In cyberspace, SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) has announced their initiation of a Flickr project, “Haiti: Look back to look ahead,” where people all over the world can share photos of culturally significant sites in Haiti as they existed before the earthquakes.

I haven’t been to Haiti for the better part of a decade, but I have not forgotten falling in love with the country.  The people and spirit of the place were remarkable, and I hope that global efforts to save the cultural property at risk are continued.

If you have any news to add or updates to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section.