Haiti's recovery from the devastating earthquake in January requires more than rebuilding structures, but also repairing tattered paintings and cultural objects still buried in the rubble, the Caribbean nation's first lady Elisabeth Preval said Thursday.
She visited the Smithsonian Institution to open an exhibit of children's artwork created after the earthquake, calling it a reminder that Haiti still needs help. The paintings and drawings will be on view through the summer. She also discussed the importance of an effort by the U.S. museum complex to lead a cultural recovery effort in Port-au-Prince, where there are few, if any, professionally trained art conservators.
"This is fundamental for our nation," Preval told The Associated Press during her Washington visit. "This is our cultural heritage. This is us."
The Smithsonian leased a building in Haiti's capital that once housed the United Nations Development Programme to create a conservation center where experts from U.S. museums can repair artworks and train Haitians to perform the intricate restoration work.
The first paintings were taken to the center last week. Experts carefully began vacuuming destructive dust from the paintings, repairing tears and "inpainting" damaged areas so it appears nothing happened, Smithsonian conservator Hugh Shockey wrote on his blog.
As many as 10,000 paintings and sculptures by Haitian masters were buried when the Musee d'Art Nader collapsed in the earthquake, said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for history, art and culture. Thousands of other objects are buried elsewhere, tracing Haiti's struggle for independence, its abolition of slavery and other cultural milestones.
"Imagine in the United States ... if every Smithsonian museum collapsed, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the White House, the U.S. Congress all collapsed," Kurin said. "At some point we'd probably say it's worth pulling out the Star-Spangled Banner, the Declaration of Independence."
The oldest objects to be recovered date back to Haiti's indigenous people from before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Some artifacts have been recovered by hand. Others will require sophisticated engineering and heavy equipment.
Murals painted on the walls of the Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral that depict scenes from the Bible have been a central focus. They date to prominent artists from the 1950s and are cherished as part of Haiti's cultural heritage. Some crumbled with the church but at least four remain mostly intact and can be saved, Kurin said. Experts are still trying to determine how.
The effort has been primarily funded with private dollars. The Broadway League trade association made the largest gift of $276,000, while the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Sciences contributed $30,000 each. Smithsonian officials are working to raise more money to sustain the effort, Kurin said.
The involvement of U.S. cultural agencies also is a response to the looting of Iraqi treasures in 2003. Broadway producer Margo Lion, who co-chairs the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said cultural recovery is a priority after Americans were accused of neglecting cultural preservation during the invasion of Iraq.
Conservators plan to turn over most of the work to Haitian professionals by November 2011.
During her visit to Washington, Preval helped open an exhibit of 100 paintings and drawings by Haitian children after the earthquake with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. They will be on view through October.
Art has provided healing for children as a way for them to express their emotions, Preval said.
"My dream and my hope is to make sure the world does not forget Haiti," Preval said of the exhibit. She hopes it can help draw more support to overhaul Haiti's schools, beginning with early childhood education, she said.
The display includes paintings by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, from their April visit to Port-au-Prince. At the direction of a 5-year-old boy, Obama painted a colorful fish and Biden painted a house.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival beginning June 24 on the National Mall also will feature artists from Haiti. Some of their work will be sold to benefit Haiti's cultural revival.