Rebuilding Haiti: Look to the past

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One of the most far-reaching and long-lasting consequences from Haiti’s recent devastation is the immeasurable loss to its culture.

In this regard, international cultural organizations have issued statements expressing concern for the state of Haiti’s cultural heritage, including the International Committee of the Blue Shield. In a press release issued January 14, The Blue Shield says that it “places the expertise and network of its member organisations at the disposal of their Haitian colleagues to support their work in assessing the damage to the cultural heritage of their countries including libraries, archives, museums and monuments and sites, and subsequent recovery, restoration and repair measures.” The Facebook group Haiti 2010 Blue Shield Solidarity was created as numerous other online discussions have surfaced.

Similarly, the President of International Council on Monuments and Sites calls “on all ICOMOS to come together in solidarity ” and “identify individual ICOMOS members and groups of members who would be willing to form part of volunteer teams to be deployed to Haiti as needed when the time comes and the heritage needs are manifested by our Haitian colleagues.” At the moment, and probably for a while, priority will remain on human life. The time will come to make the decisions to rebuild Haiti.

Photographer Maggie Steber wrote in her Jan 19 New York Times “Essay: A Culture in Jeopardy, Too”:

“Devastated by the loss of its people and its places, Haiti stands on the precipice of losing something more precious — as audacious as that sounds amid all this death — because it is transcendent.

Haiti stands to lose its culture.

Culture describes a people more than anything. It stems from history. It is the glue that holds a nation together when all else fails. But now that, too, may be lost, in the well-intentioned rebuilding efforts by the international community.”

When cities, monuments, buildings and artifacts mark the way people live and provide information about ourselves and our ancestors, how will Haitian cultural heritage be altered when so much of the nation’s built environment has been reduced to rubble? When so many of its people have perished and can no longer tell their stories? Regardless of the condition of these structures before the recent earthquake, these were the people’s homes, where they learned, conducted business, worked and played.

“If the world is going to rebuild Haiti, Haitians must have a say.” Maggie Steber, who has covered Haiti for 30 years, writes. Loyola University’s Professor Angel Parham echoes this sentiment.

How will Haitians have a say? Indeed, discussions surrounding what’s best for a renewed Haiti sound hopeful, as policymakers see the opportunity to seize the moment to improve and “to change the country forever.” Washington Post reports.

We call for a look to the past. One way for Haitians to have a say is by observing how life was lived through images and videos before the earthquake. Much can be gathered as to what needs to change and what needs to be recreated and restored. And created anew.

Photo: James P. Blair/National Geographic, From the Archive: Haiti, Alive by David W. Dunlap, The New York Times


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5 Comments on “Rebuilding Haiti: Look to the past”

  1. Megan Gannon

    See also Marc Lacey's article from yesterday's Times:

    He reports on the efforts being made by artists, art dealers, students, and Unesco envoys in Haiti to preserve cultural objects after the earthquake. Lacey ends with this quote from sculptor, Patrick Vilaire:

    ' Asked how he could focus on old books after such a catastrophic event, Mr. Vilaire said, “The dead are dead, we know that. But if you don’t have the memory of the past, the rest of us can’t continue living.” '

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