As the dust settles at the National Museum of Brazil after , Samuel Franco Arce is gearing up to help.
Arce has twice rescued his own small museum in Guatemala from floods and storms, and has just completed a Dutch leadership to teach others this unusual form of emergency aid.
He and a team of “first aiders” have offered to help their Brazilian colleagues find the funds and experts they need after a fire engulfed their 200-year-old national museum. A Unesco-led mission is being readied this week to head to Rio de Janeiro to provide concrete help.
“They are still in shock,” says Arce, speaking from the offices of the in the Netherlands, co-organiser of the cultural course. “They have to assess the damage and we are asking if they have the proper forms, if they need online tutorials and what experts they need.”
Brazil National Museum: as much as 90% of collection destroyed in fire
Art and culture are perhaps more vulnerable than at any moment since the end of the second world war – and not just in . Flood, fire, war, terrorism, sabotage, theft, earthquakes and neglect: the causes of cultural dereliction are many and varied.
Participants in the Dutch course, backed by Unesco, the Smithsonian Institute and heritage body , came from 23 countries and five continents. The event culminated in a faux-disaster scenario: a gas explosion, army and fire officers guarding the scene from protesters, and the rescuers carrying out shattered artefacts “as carefully as you would a baby”.
“First aid for heritage is very much like first aid to a human,” says course organiser Deborah Stolk of the Prince Claus Fund. “It is like a cultural ambulance, to stabilise the situation and prevent it from getting worse. After assessing the risks, for example, of whether you can go into the building, people would stabilise a wall, prevent it from falling down or evacuate a vase in a dangerous place.”
It is not always that simple. Lama Abboud, an architect based in Homs in Syria, has taken several of the Dutch courses and organised a network of training in .
“Since 2011, our Syrian culture heritage [has been] threatened by many complex situations due to the armed conflict and its consequences,” she explains. “In Homs, the built heritage is in its worst conditions, exposed to all weather elements in addition to vandalism for more than six years. The conflict leads to a large displacement [of people too], so most intangible heritage elements are in real danger. Looting and illegal excavation are a real threat too.”
Like a caricature, says Stolk, community tensions and inequalities that already exist have been exaggerated during a disaster. Khan Agha Dawoodzai, an activist from , says that the answer was to get the community involved.
“In recent weeks, there was fighting in the Ghazni province and a museum of Islamic civilisation was destroyed,” he says. “The documents were blown by the wind through the streets. If the community had understood the importance of their documents and a little about how they could protect them, it could have been the first responder.”
Cultural heritage, he points out, can even be a weapon – when, for example, the Buddhas of Bamiyan wall carvings were . Such heritage could be important to villages for their future economic development, tourism and shared community.
“Smaller conflicts fuel the bigger ones,” he says. “A village may have different ethnicities but our cultural heritage is the same: this is our shared identity and very important to peace building in Afghanistan.”
Elsa Arroyo followed this approach last year, after an earthquake struck in Mexico, damaging mural paintings in 16th century monasteries. The lecturer at UNAM university’s Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas helped raise $10,000 in finance and took her 60 students on an extraordinary field trip – to work on recovering the monuments.
In this case, the local community also received government funding for its own reconstruction, but she says poverty continued to be a challenge. “Culture needs maintenance in order to have a good condition, and all these monuments are kind of abandoned, even if they are used for rituals and festivities,” Arroyo says.
In Peru’s high Andes Michaela Novotna, another course participant, has been trying to raise awareness of places like the Santa Cruz church in Orurillo, Puno – supposedly closed because it is falling down, although still used for weekly mass.
“We’re rescuing sad paintings that look like rags, broken sculptures, leaning churches – it’s something called a slow disaster,” she says. “I’m working with colonial artwork that has been neglected for 200 years.”
Treasures of the past are far more than just stuff, especially when local people get involved in their own rescue, adds Stolk. She spoke via satellite phone to advise victims of the , after they decided to rescue a collection of Quang manuscripts from a collapsed library.
“They changed from being victims to active participants in their own recovery,” she says. “Everything they would take from beneath the rubble would see a future. What happens is that you can connect a past to a future, while people are actually in this very miserable situation in the present. That hope and that pride are very much underestimated.”
This is how Abboud feels, thinking about her home in Syria and the restoration ahead in Brazil. “The conflict will be finished one day, but the cultural heritage – that will stay. When we rescue and protect our heritage, it is the same as when we protect our children. Both carry parts of our souls and our ancestors’ spirits.”