Castera Bazile
Castera Bazile

Anyone who keeps up with the artifact and art market or have seen at least one “Indiana Jones” movie, is familiar with the underground and sophisticated ring of curatorial thieves waiting for an opportunity (natural or man-made) to pounce on valuable artifacts for very wealthy clients. Oh, let me not forget – to feature on Ebay. UNESCO released the following statement about its campaign to protect Haiti’s cultural heritage from pillaging:

The Director-General of the Organization, Irina Bokova, on Wednesday wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, asking for his support in preventing the dispersion of Haiti’s cultural heritage.

“I would be most grateful,” she wrote, “if you would request Mr John Holmes, your Special Envoy for Haiti and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian affairs, as well as the relevant authorities in charge of the overall coordination of UN humanitarian support in Port-au-Prince – the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) – to ensure, as far as possible, the immediate security of the sites containing these artefacts.”

Ms Bokova further asked Mr Ban to consider recommending that the Security Council adopt a resolution instituting a temporary ban on the trade or transfer of Haitian cultural property. The Director-General also suggested that institutions such as Interpol, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and others assist in the implementation of such a ban.

The Director-General is also seeking to mobilize the support of the whole international community and of art market and museum professionals in enforcing the ban. “It is particularly important,” she urged in her letter, “to verify the origin of cultural property that might be imported, exported and/or offered for sale, especially on the Internet.”

Referring to UNESCO’s previous experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Director-General said she intended to draw on national and international experts to orient and coordinate the assistance required to protect Haiti’s cultural heritage. “This heritage,” she insisted “is an invaluable source of identity and pride for the people on the island and will be essential to the success of their national reconstruction.”

It is important to prevent treasure hunters from rifling through the rubble of the numerous cultural landmarks that collapsed in the earthquake. Among them are the former Presidential Palace and Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, along with many edifices in Jacmel, the 17th century French colonial town Haiti planned to propose for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The one property already inscribed on the List – the National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers – with its royal palace and large fortress appears to have been spared by the quake. As were the country’s main museums and archives.

UNESCO has already helped salvage the exceptionally rich historical archives of George Corvington, the historian of Haiti. It is also contributing to attempts to rescue whatever panels or significant fragments remain of the remarkable painted murals that decorated the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port-au-Prince.

This isn’t limited to museum and art gallery stuff, but libraries as well. According to an email I received from a friend, Haiti’s major libraries and collections are either buried or in danger of being lost in damaged structures. This is based on a report by Patrick Tardieau, an archivist from the Bibliotheque des Peres du Saint Espirit, Port au Prince’s oldest library. [Tardieau gave the report in Canada.]

Dear all,

Here is a brief point on the situation in Haïti.

We have a contact with Patrick Tardieu who is an archivist in the oldest library in Port au Prince, Bibliothèque des Pères du Saint Esprit.

Fortunately, he’s alive and flighted yesterday to Canada. The first information we have are:

– Saint Martial College in which there is the Bibliothèque Haïtienne des pères du saint esprit collapsed
– The St Louis de Gonzague library building would be ok but very weakened
– The national Library collapsed, at least a part of it

Most of the university libraries collapsed too. Those libraries gathered very old collections (from the 16th centuries). Several manuscripts were brought by the missionaries who came from Europe.
Other have been collected in the Caraibs (notably, publications on the haitian revolutions, transcriptions of vaudou oral traditions, personal documents from the 18th centuries).

Bibliotheques Sans Frontieres (Libraries Without Borders) and other organizations in Europe and the U.S. are attempting to salvage the libraries through various efforts including fundraising. If you can read French, you can find more information about Bibliotheques Sans Frontiereshere. The International Federation of Library Associations and FOKAL (based in Port-au-Prince, part of the Open Society Institute supported by George Soros) are monitoring the situation and hope to move towards recovering items from the libraries and reopening facilities. Friends of FOKAL in the U.S. have launched a fundraising campaign.

In the meantime, I believe it’s crucial if possible for survivors and Haitian Americans to begin talking to one another and documenting stories from family andfriends. Pull out what ever photographs you have, music, recipes, or the rhum you managed to save for a special occasion. That occasion may be now. Break it open February 16. Will Haiti’s Karnaval be cancelled? At this time, the people who remain may be the best hope for saving Haiti’s cultural heritage. Cherche la vie! (trans. “To Look for Life.”)