A Conversation with Cultural Heritage Disaster Responders

  • Ann Frellsen
  • Renée Stein

Ann Frellsen, National Heritage Responder and Head of Conservation (retired) - Emory University Libraries

Renée Stein, Director of Conservation - Carlos Museum, Emory University

With National Heritage Responders:

Jeanne Drewes, Library of Congress (retired)

Lori Foley, FEMA - Heritage Emergency National Task Force

David Goist, Goist Art Conservation

Holly Herro, National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health

Vicki Lee, National Archives and Records Administration, Vicki Lee Conservation (retired)

Theresa Voellinger, Harpers Ferry Center - National Park Service

Howard Wellman, Howard Wellman Conservation, LLC

The artists whose works are included in And I Must Scream grapple with various types of disasters, including climate change, war, human rights violations, and the pandemic. These powerful works confront viewers with the origins and causes of these disasters as well as their immediate and long-term impacts. The scale is both local and global, as the experiences spread through communities and across cultures. Conservators and preservation professionals who are responsible for protecting and preserving cultural heritage throughout the world face these same catastrophes. Their experiences provide another vantage point on the threat and challenge of disasters, whether environmental, political, or humanitarian. Over recent decades the field of cultural heritage conservation has evolved from responding to the needs of singular objects through interventive treatment to include entire collections through preventive care as well as global crises through disaster response. The field has organized, trained, and mobilized. The approaches and networks for response mirror the increasing scale and variety of the crises. The experiences of cultural heritage responders demonstrate the urgent need for preparedness, resources, advocacy, and change. As these professionals work to address the destruction of cultural heritage, they also witness the important role that tangible cultural heritage itself plays in the process of individual and community recovery in the wake of disaster.
Cultural heritage preservation professionals are a curious blend of historian, artist, and scientist. Many focus their experience and expertise on a particular type of artifact or collection, such as antiquities, contemporary art, archives, sculpture, furniture, or architecture. Most specialize in a specific art form or medium, including paintings, paper, ceramics, stone, or books. A very small subset of those professionals is also dedicated to aiding cultural heritage materials affected by disasters. Within days, if not hours, they respond to the needs of sites devastated by hurricanes, flood waters, fires, even swarming insects. They help the collections and objects by documenting, stabilizing, and removing them from harmful situations. As needed, they find additional specialists to address damage, and they assist owners in finding funding for recovery. Many responders remain connected to the people and institutions they helped for years after the initial event.
Cultural heritage disaster response can be traced back to the WWII Monuments Men, whose team member George Stout helped found the conservation organization that eventually became the American Institute for Conservation. When the Arno river flooded in 1966, the Mud Angels came from all over the world to help the people of Florence, Italy, recover thousands of damaged books, paintings, sculptures, and other artworks. There were no courses on disaster response or specific procedures taught for recovery. Knowledge came through experience, eventually leading to protocols and practices. Today there are a handful of organizations worldwide that focus on cultural heritage response, with formal training and designated resources. The Foundation for Advancement in Conservation’s National Heritage Responders (NHR) team has about 100 volunteer members. Its formation began not long after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Southeast US in 2005 and brought awareness of the crucial need for more organized response.
Since then, NHR members have responded with literal boots on the ground and hands on deck to dozens of small and large disasters affecting all types and sizes of collections held by archives, historic houses, libraries, museums, sites, and gardens. Team members gave assistance after catastrophic events familiar from news headlines: the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012, and the 2017 hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico. They built or set up recovery centers where quantities of damaged collections were brought for assessment and initial stabilization. The 24/7 Emergency Help Line probably does as much good as any single deployment by providing a calm voice of expertise to anyone in need, no matter the size or focus of the collection in danger.
Response relies upon immediate, efficient assessment and effective prioritization, often on a large scale and with limited staff, supplies, and financial resources. There is little or no money for this kind of work and no grants for deployment. Many NHR members must take vacation leave from jobs within institutions or suspend their business activities. They pay for all their vaccinations and may receive only limited reimbursement for travel costs. Responders are compelled to this work, saying they’ve been “bitten by the bug” — a calling of passion and commitment.
The authors engaged several key contributors to the arena of cultural heritage disaster response in conversations about their experiences and perspectives. They invited written responses to a set of preliminary questions and then coordinated Zoom conversations to focus on emerging themes. These cultural heritage responders are conservators, preservation specialists, instructors, advocates, and leaders who attest to the realities of logistics, the pain of destruction, and the inspiration of recovery. The documentary images taken by responders to record objects and sites after disasters cannot capture the enormity and severity of these events. Instead, the impacts of disasters are better conveyed through the words of responders who experience their complexity and urgency. Excerpts of their dialogues are shared as a series of questions and selected responses.

Reflecting on the evolution of disaster response for cultural heritage, what are some significant lessons learned?

David Goist: Don’t go until you are invited. Resources are limited, so don’t go in and consume the water and the food available. This premise has been adopted by NHR, and it’s in their bylaws now.

Jeanne Drewes: The necessity of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] for responders. In the earlier days people rushed into a disaster zone without proper care for their own health and needs. I remember helping with several disaster recoveries where I wore no mask of any kind, no gloves of any kind, and would go outside for short breaks when my voice was gone and when my throat felt restricted from the mold reaction. Then I would go in again as soon as I could talk more normally and do it all again. That was a mistake, which doesn’t happen now.

Lori Foley: There is an increased awareness of the need for cultural stewards and emergency managers to be better prepared to work together to address emergencies and disasters that affect cultural institutions and historic sites. And I’m trying my hardest to incorporate protection of cultural heritage in every mission area of FEMA —— prevention, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.

Howard Wellman: The importance of the Incident Command System as well as negotiation and communications skills, especially in managing expectations among non-conservators, demonstrating cultural sensitivity, and promoting awareness.

Theresa Voellinger: We became more aggressive with getting our foot in the door and saying these are the supplies we need, this is the amount of people we need, this is the scope of what we need. Over time we got better at being more efficient on the ground and more effective afterward, seeing the whole process through. It's a constant learning process.

Holly Herro: We have learned how to structure our response training to be meaningful at all levels of staff, and we knew it needed to happen sooner rather than later. The training highlights the importance of everyone’s skills and areas of expertise — from leadership to building staff to collections specialists. We are cross-training everyone.

How do you manage in the challenging circumstances of a disaster?

DG: As a conservator-responder, I learned to adopt what we call “the MacGyver factor,” in that we need to improvise during a recovery. It can be really difficult to get supplies and most have to be carried in personal luggage. A good bench conservator is not necessarily a good disaster responder.

TV: You do what you have to do. You don’t have your normal tools, your normal pristine setting. The way you transport something may not be exactly ideal. But it’s that, or nothing. When you are out in the field, there is a lot of creativity and a lot of rethinking, reevaluating how you do things.

Vicki Lee: You need to remember to breathe and look around and see what is needed, who's there to help. Remember to inform the stakeholders at regular intervals about progress and issues — even when you're not absolutely sure. Often, they can help you fill a need or see a solution that you can't see because you're not local, it's not your collection. I prefer to be [the one] doing but am most often assigned to lead or to consult. So, I try to organize people into teams and make assignments. I try to get a handle on what is needed physically to make rescue possible. I try to make use of the untrained (from a conservation point of view) by training them.

HH: As members of the NHR Working Group, we immediately route information and specific questions to the rest of the NHR team who work behind the scenes to provide information quickly to team members and those they are helping in the midst of a disaster response effort, including connecting to specialists and providing tip sheets.

Is the need for response growing due to the increasing frequency and urgency of disasters resulting from climate change?

JD: Now there is so much man-made destruction of cultural heritage and the climate events that are more frequent and violent that response has had to evolve. Partly that is because of the development of faster communications, social media and more interconnectedness, but also it has developed, I believe, because of the need.

HW: The cultural heritage community has woken up to the fact that the government won't and can't be there to help in every situation. We have to be ready to do it on our own.

VL: These disasters are only going to get bigger; they're going to get worse; they're going to affect more parts of the country. This is going to keep happening and so we need to focus on how we are going to help the regular people respond to these things. We should plan a little bit more to be more resilient.

LF: Coming from the federal perspective, there is certainly the recognition that disasters are becoming more frequent, are becoming more severe, the impact is becoming more deadly and more dangerous. We're going to be spending more time and more money on response when in fact, we should be directing a lot of that energy toward getting people prepared, so the consequences aren't nearly as dire. Disasters are not going to go away. So, it's the people that we have to change, and that's the tough part.

When responding to a disaster event outside of your “home environment” (whether in a different institution, country, or culture), how do you successfully and sensitively support those who are struggling?

VL: Listen, listen and listen! It's the most important aspect of dealing with the people who are in the emergency. Once you've heard their story and listened to what they think they need, then you can propose solutions and ideas that you can help them implement to save their materials. I think working in this way empowers people and helps lift them out of their fear and depression. I think giving people the knowledge to help themselves is important. I don't think it was as big a focus when I started as a responder.

DG: I think some of my best service has been helping those who have experienced a disaster. One can be having a seemingly normal conversation and all of a sudden you have an individual sobbing on your shoulder. Being a good and patient listener is essential. Those who you are helping really appreciate that someone who cares is there to help. Even a telephone call, provided [phone] service is available, means a lot to someone in a disaster area, letting them know we are aware of their situation, and they are not forgotten. Even in the worst of situations, finding humor in the cruelty of life can help.

LF: First and foremost, one must be a good listener and be able to really hear what a survivor is saying. One must be able to ask questions that don’t cause a survivor to bristle at an assumption or thoughtless comment you’ve made. Whoever has been affected in whatever country — they are the best judge of what's valuable and what's not, what they want salvaged and what can go by the wayside. Response requires empathy, compassion, patience, the ability to turn oneself over completely to recognizing the humanity of the person whose life has been upended.

Based on your disaster response experiences, what are your thoughts on the role of cultural heritage in the process of national, community, social, and/or personal recovery?

DG: I remember when I arrived in Haiti, I was overwhelmed by the suffering of the people, thousands still living in tents. I soon stopped making eye contact. I asked why we were doing this when there were so many major problems in that country. The response was that when life does return to normal, the Haitians will need to be surrounded by their cultural and artistic heritage that has survived. In New York, I helped an artist who had some four-thousand pieces [paintings] in his studio and apartment. His work was to be his legacy to his children. I was trying to help him save his life’s work.

JD: I am reminded of the Japanese tsunami and all the damaged photographs that washed up and how important those were for the recovery of that community. Culture and history are so important to recovery, and that’s why enemies destroy culture when trying to conquer a people. The resilience of a people is partly in keeping that history and culture. Righting the loss of the memories some wish forgotten is what cultural heritage is about, and it allows recovery from disasters, whether man-made or natural. It brings people together in such important ways and strengthens them and enables hope for the future.

VL: Cultural heritage is something that ties people together and informs who they are. In a disaster that unity can be lost, and it will take longer for the society as a whole to recover both economically and socially. I have seen in Haiti and in Puerto Rico that cultural heritage and the arts can play a role in recovery psychologically as well.

LF: The 2018 blaze at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro destroyed the majority of the museum’s more than 20 million artifacts. The destroyed collections that always bring tears to my eyes are the audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken. Gone, forever. When the devastating fire overwhelmed Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019, the world recognized the loss of so many cultural resources — objects, artwork, and artifacts imbued with the history, faith, craftsmanship, and creativity that built this famous monument, itself a cultural and historic resource. These tragedies so vividly demonstrate that cultural heritage is not a renewable commodity. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters of this caliber to raise awareness about [the importance of] cultural heritage.

Recognizing this increasing urgency and our global connectedness, what do we need to do to prepare for the future?

HH: I found over the years that administrators don't understand the importance [of planning and training]; they don't buy into it until they've had an event. And then they get it. We need to emphasize mitigation through risk management and preventive maintenance.

JD: We should be using our capabilities virtually. Why? Because we don't use energy; because we don't add to the climate situation by flying, and because it’s better for our personal health.

TV: My hope for the future would be to somehow make a clear path to more resources for funding that would be available to smaller institutions. I know there are systems now in place, but they are cumbersome and not always available readily. Also, we need to spread the word, not only to museum people who are in the know, but also going higher up into leadership. We need to have a little more influence on the graduate programs [for conservation] and on emerging conservators coming out.

VL: We need to connect all of the people and all of the various organizations to talk through the issues together. Keeping those groups up to date and training among smaller groups also makes assistance more accessible to smaller institutions. It's the small house museums and similar places that may need to know about us and to reach out. For us to be able to give them quick tips and ways to help themselves is really important.

LF: It is incumbent upon cultural stewards to establish a dialogue with their local first responders so when — not if — a disaster occurs, they understand the responders' priorities, protocols, and procedures necessary to contain damage and mitigate loss. Conversely, it’s incumbent upon first responders to reach out to the local cultural institutions as their professional responsibility to protect their community. Eventually, the focus needs to shift from response and recovery to preparedness — to save lives, protect cultural and historic resources, and save money.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted global connectedness, disasters of all sorts palpably demonstrate the compounded ripple effect of emergencies, actions, and reactions. Cultural heritage professionals who respond to disasters witness the desperation and despair that transpire on both personal and community levels. Through the collective experience of repeated responses, cultural heritage professionals have recognized the impact of their interventions and the vital importance of education, empathy, and preparedness.
Artifacts and sites are now at additional risk, perhaps even greater risk than the physical deterioration due to inherent weakness in materials and manufacture, or the effects of handling, use, and exhibition. Cultural heritage professionals are trained to anticipate and address those routine sources of damage. Faced with the increasing frequency of disasters, there is now an urgent need to learn new ways to plan for and mitigate the effects of climate change as well as the political, social, and economic upheaval it and other growing crises will have on our institutions and collections.
Yet leaders are slow to commit resources, and too few institutions are prepared for even a small-scale disaster event. A 2019 report on preservation conditions in the United States indicated that fewer than 30 percent of institutions have a disaster plan and staff trained to carry out the plan on behalf of collections held in public trust. That calculation is even lower when considering the numerous and varied collections and sites throughout the world. To be successful in this mounting challenge, communities must realize the inherent value of preserving cultural heritage as a source of resilience, memory, and hope.