Welcome to the Preservation Technology podcast; the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join Jason Church as he speaks with Karen Pavelka, a lecturer in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. Karen will talk about her experiences helping to setup a conservation lab at the Cultural Recovery Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
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Jason Church: As we all know, on Jan. 12, 2010 there was a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti that devastated the country and Karen, you’ve just come back from doing some work in Haiti. What exactly were you doing there?
Karen Pavelka: I was helping to setup the lab at the Cultural Recovery Center in Port-au-Prince. I went down with two other conservators, a painting’s conservator, David Goist and an objects conservator, Bev Perkins, and the center was just getting started at that point. We were bringing materials in and organizing. There was a delegation of potential donors coming through and one of the reasons they had us there was to talk to the potential donors and tell them about the importance of the project and explain what conservation could and couldn’t do down there , and to try to build support. So, mine was pretty much, a planning and organizational visit. I got to do a little bit of treatment but not so much. Mostly, I got to lead tours, participated in workshops, help stand in as a teacher in workshops, it’s a very unstructured environment.
J.C.: Who were you training in these workshops?
K.P.: Everything in Haiti is chaotic as you might imagine, and you don’t exactly know what you’re going to be doing day to day, so one day I showed up at the Center and some people from the West Indies happened to show up and said that they were going to be teaching a workshop to librarians and archivists the next day showing basic preservation techniques. So, I got to talk to them about basic conservations techniques and what one can and can’t do in a small space. It was two conservators from the West Indies who were working with people from Haiti, teaching people from Haiti.
J.C.: The Conservation Resource Center that they have established now that you helped establish there in Port-au-Prince, what is that like? How large is it, who is it going to service, who’s funding it, that sort of thing?
K.P.: It’s not what you’re used to when you think of a conservation lab. It’s in a building that used to be a suite of offices. The building had been inhabited by the U.N. and the reason the site was chosen was because the building is very structurally sound. It didn’t fall over in the earthquake and it doesn’t look like it’s likely to fall over if there is another earthquake. It also happens to have a large fence around it; I guess about and 8 or 10 foot fence and a post where you can have armed guards. So, it was chosen for security and probably proximity to other environments, but it wasn’t chosen as an ideal lab space. We set up tables and shelves where we could get them and there are three labs there, they’re calling them labs, each one of them has a large room or a couple of large rooms and then there will be a smaller room down the hall that has a sink, and they all have bathrooms next to them. There is no real area for wet treatment. You carry all the water in and out of the working space. There are big jugs of distilled water, but you know, it’s pretty much an office space. It’s very beautiful, it’s quite a beautiful country, and the space itself is lovely but more of an office suite than a lab.
J.C.: Who do they plan to be doing the actual work there?
K.P.: The project is organized by the Smithsonian. They are the ones who are spearheading the project, and they’re working with a number of other institutions, AIC being a very prominent member. So far, most of the conservators who have gone down have been organized through AIC, the American Institute for Conservation. AIC has served as a sort of clearinghouse to accept applications from conservators and coordinate travel and send them down. Stephanie Hornbeck is an American Objects Conservator, and she’s the chief conservator on the project. She is organizing all the conservation efforts. She is going out and selecting the objects for treatment and talking to the people in the collections, make alliances with people in collections. The very first thing people had to do was to convince people that it was safe to send their objects to the Center. Everything in Haiti as you might imagine, is pretty chaotic right now. So people weren’t exactly willing to say, “Oh good, I’m going to give you my most valuable object” because there’s a certain amount of distrust. Stephanie and the other staff at the Cultural Recovery Center have been making friends with the community doing outreach and letting people know that they can send their objects here, setting up tours, showing them some work that’s been done.
J.C.: Well, how are the objects chosen that are being treated?
K.P.: They will work on things that people bring them. They are not choosing the objects, they’re telling people and the arts community that they can bring objects to the Center and the Center will treat them. They have a huge backlog of paintings. Right now the paintings are, I think they’re still mostly from private galleries but the thought is that they’ll be working with museums as well. They’re being pretty democratic about the work that they take in. They’ll take in work from pretty much everyone.
J.C.: As it pertains to cultural materials and resources, what are the conditions in Haiti right now?
K. P.: Horrible, absolutely horrible. There’s rubble everywhere. I saw one dump truck the entire time I was in Haiti. The streets haven’t been cleared, the electricity is sporadic, all of the hotels are running on generators. There is no central power or very little. The houses of the more well to do people, the hotels that we were staying in, for anyone who can afford it, are running generators to keep power and even they go out periodically, so you know the power is going to go off periodically while you’re there. As I said the streets are just filled with rubble, they’re still clearing collapsed buildings by hand. You see people digging through piles of rubble and pulling out the bricks and the rebar that they might be able to fashion into some sort of dwelling. All those pictures of houses that you see, the blue tents that people are living in, those seem to be the upper middle class ones. A lot of what you see on the street is much worse than that, and I was there before the rains really began in earnest. There was some rain but not tons of rain. The conditions are unbelievable.
J.C.: When you were there in July and saw the conditions you saw, that was really before the hurricane seasonal rains that they are having, so I’m sure that works of art on paper and of course canvases and mold issues must be extravagant right now. I can’t imagine what they must be seeing at the Cultural Center as they bring in these works of art. Are they having a backlog of objects and if so, how are they, I know with electricity issues, are they having to freeze objects to withstand the mold and that sort of thing?
K.P.: Freezing probably isn’t so much of a possibility right now because of the electricity. After the earthquake, they did a lot of work to salvage as many things as they could and just get them in a dry situation, you know, to pull them out of the rubble and just put them somewhere where they would be safe. I’m sure that there will be a lot more mold when their rains come because I have no idea what condition some of the buildings are going to be in where the artifacts are housed, so I can’t say anything about whether or not they have leaky roofs or anything like that. I’d be surprised if they don’t but who knows. The Center does have a backlog of materials that they work on. They had a backlog when I was there, and I’m pretty sure it’s only increased since I got back. They’re storing them in the Center and that was one of the reasons that they picked the space that they did. It had enough room not only to work on objects, but to store things that people would work on later on.
J.C.: How were you contacted originally to get involved?
K.P.: I’m a member of AIC-CERT, a team of conservators that was trained to respond to disasters and the first call for conservators to work in Haiti went out to AIC-CERT members. I looked at it and thought no, not going to apply, not going to go, not me, because people said it was going to be very rough conditions, living in tents with spotty electricity. I don’t camp. I think of camping as living hell and you know I’m spoiled. I’m an incredibly spoiled middle class person. I like electricity, so I looked at it as I’m not going to go, not a snowball’s chance in hell, and then no other paper conservators signed up to do it. So what are you going to do? So, I ended up having to think, “Oh what the hell, I can do this.”
J.C.: Tell us a little bit more about the AIC-CERT team.
K.P.: AIC-CERT is a group of sixty-one trained people who have all gone through a similar set of training in the incident command system and then in protocols that are used for responding to and assessing disaster situations. Sixty-one of course, is not enough people. Fortunately, AIC just got another grant to train another cohort of CERT responders, so that’ll be coming up soon. If you’re interested, keep an eye out, we can use more people, especially from the areas of the country like the gulf coast and Alaska. As you might imagine, so far most of the people are on the east coast. So AIC-CERT is a group of people who are trained to respond to disasters, and I was in the initial cohort of that training.
J.C.: Aside from the work that they’re doing in Haiti, if there are other disasters, how would people, or say institutions and local governments contact AIC-CERT?
K.P.: There’s a link to AIC-CERT on the AIC Homepage and actually the work in Haiti is somewhat outside of what we thought of as the original mission for AIC-CERT. The original thought was that the teams would respond to disasters in the United States and would only respond if we are invited into a situation. So, we don’t go unless were invited. People can look at the AIC Homepage and there is a link to AIC-CERT there. There is a 24-hour hotline where you can ask for assistance or you can just ask for advice. If you find something that is underwater, you can just call up someone on the hotline and say can you give me some advice here and we’re always happy to do that. So far, AIC-CERT has responded to the floods in the Midwest and to Galveston after Hurricane Ike. AIC-CERT was formed as a response to all of the damage that was caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We found that we weren’t really as well prepared as we needed to be, but we also found that AIC was the natural clearinghouse to get conservators into a situation.
J.C.: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your time in Haiti, any of the treatments you did, or any stories you want to share about your time there?
K.P.: I’m just really impressed with all of the work that people at the Center are doing there. They are working through amazing odds, absolutely amazing odds and they are doing it with grace, with dignity, and they’re doing good solid work. Stephanie Hornbeck is absolutely amazing. She coordinates the work, she works well with the staff, she’s setting up training and all of the staff at the center there. They are just amazing people. So I was just very proud and honored to be able to work with them. I was a tiny, tiny cog in the beginning of what I think will be a very impressive project in the end, and I was happy to be a tiny cog there.
J.C.: Very good. Well Karen, thank you for talking to us today, and we appreciate the information you’ve been able to share with us, and we look forward to talking with you again in the future.
K.P.: Well you’re welcome and I’m very happy to talk to you and thank you for having me.
And that was NCPTT’s Jason Church interviewing paper conservator Karen Pavelka. You can find a full transcript of this interview on the NCPTT Website at NCPTT.NPS.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.