Uniting to Save: Sharing the Importance of Cultural Heritage Protection in Your Community

Originally published at rebeccafifieldpreservation.com.

Last week I attended Uniting to Save World Cultures: Investigating the Attributes of Successful Cultural Heritage Protection Interventions at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Organized by the Smithsonian’s office of Cultural Heritage Protection, the conference was broken into four panels: Risk Reduction, Building the Capacity for Resilience, Local Leadership During Crises, and Negotiations and Collaborations During and After a Crisis. The presentations were rich with alliances, education, innovation, and sometimes pure luck. Speakers from Haiti, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others recounted efforts to save and salvage culture in duress, poignant reminders of what is at stake.

Life safety is foremost in a response effort, but for return to normalcy, we seek connection with our communities and what defines them. To hear that iconic historic sites and cultural resources have been damaged or destroyed compounds our feelings of loss. The United Nations established a structure of UN agency clusters that are active early in response to “turn the dividends of humanitarian action into sustainable crisis recovery”, but as Aparna Tandon of ICCROM noted, it includes no cluster for cultural recovery.[1] In areas stricken by natural disaster and conflict, the UN’s very own cultural arm, UNESCO, has outlined the importance of access to education and cultural heritage as a right and stabilizing force where tumult is the norm.[2] To fail to include cultural heritage response and recovery is to salvage human life, without salvaging what makes us human.

It is possible to begin building awareness of cultural needs in an emergency now at the local level. First, as collection stewards, we must make preservation activities in our institutions more visible. Heritage at risk is highly visible in the media today, given the destruction and looting of cultural sites in Syria and Iraq. Culture is lost during conflict, flood, or even as the result of an isolated pipe burst. For susceptible materials, even a small emergency can mean loss of some unique part of human experience. Risk mitigation, trained response and recovery can prevent that loss. If our stakeholders don’t know about the steps institutions take to protect heritage, we can’t expect them to support cultural property protection in an emergency. Here are a few ways cultural institutions can connect to community to support the recovery of cultural heritage after a disaster:

  • Work with local emergency managers and first responders to make them aware of your institution and its collections. Invite them for a tour. Ask them about their interests; identify ways to create personal connections between them and your collections.
  • Join or request assistance in developing an Alliance for Response(AfR) group in your area. AfR connects emergency managers, first responders, and the cultural community to find common ground before emergencies happen. Recently, this program has moved from Heritage Preservation to the Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation. Visit http://www.heritageemergency.org/initiatives/alliance-for-response/afr-home/.
  • Meet with local cultural community leaders to understand cultural heritage priorities in the community. Recovery requires the involvement of the community regardless of what expertise and money emergency managers bring to the table. Doing this work ahead of emergencies facilitates recovery sooner.
  • Hold a brown-bag lunch, disaster-related historical lecture series, or other programming that can provide a venue for you to talk about how your organization and the cultural sector prepares for and responds to emergencies today. Other ways to get this message out include newspaper articles, websites, and behind-the-scenes tours. Emphasize what the loss of your cultural resource might mean to your various institutional stakeholders. If collections are lost, what will that mean to school children, a particular ethnic group, alumni of a historic school, women, or the impact on tourism in your community? Highlight institutional preparedness to start a conversation about community preparedness.
  • Host an emergency management agency public preparedness program at your institution, and insert a discussion about how your institution prepares for emergencies.

Acting on any of these ideas assumes that your organization has done the vital work of preparing for emergencies, identifying risks, and developing mitigation strategies. If your organization has yet to begin establishing an emergency management program, including assessing risks, writing a plan, and training staff, start right away. See my post Five Small Ways to Boost Your Institution’s Emergency Preparedness or any number of resources through the FAIC website.

Thanks to Corine Wegener, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer at the Smithsonian for her vision and hard work forwarding this mission. You can review the Twitter feed from the conference at #unitetosave . Visit the SI Heritage and Disaster Response website at http://unitetosave.si.edu.

[1] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. 2015. Knowledge Portal: Space-based information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response. http://www.un-spider.org/risks-and-disasters/the-un-and-disaster-management

[2] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 2010. The right to education in emergency situations, A/64/L.58. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/pcpd/education-in-emergencies/nine-reasons/ (24 January 2015).


Deirdre McCarthy of the National Park Service Cultural Resources Geographic Information Systems discusses the use of GIS for rapid assessment of historic structures in New Orleans after Katrina to prevent needless tear downs of historic structures. As McCarthy pointed out, imagine how technology has advanced from 2005 to better enable this work after a disaster. Their team surveyed approximately 90,000 buildings.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.