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What is the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative?

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It’s been 10 years since the earthquake that devastated Haiti, and recently Smithsonian Magazine highlighted the work that has been done since then in the field of cultural recovery. The Haitian Cultural Recovery Project, aided by partners across the U.S. government and inspired by the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, established the baseline by which many other cultural recovery projects have been jump-started in the wake of natural disaster and war.

The organization behind many of these projects is the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), which “employs a collaborative approach and serves as a trusted resource for the cultural heritage disaster risk management community by supporting cultural heritage stewards in the U.S. and abroad.” Headed by Corine Wegener, who founded the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, the SCRI has four functions:

  • Bringing recognition to the scope of the problem
  • Fostering resilience among heritage organizations
  • Supporting response when disasters place heritage at risk
  • Conducting research about at-risk heritage

What are some of the things that the SCRI has done since its inception?

  1. Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), they continued the work of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF). The work of HENTF includes Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART) for US-based professionals, who “learn to be proactive yet sensitive to human needs, respectful of local context, and, after completing their training, ready to support measures to protect cultural heritage in their own communities.”
  2. They have developed and distributed a number of training aids which inform people about the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, as well as culture-specific guides on Mosul, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. These guides are “designed to assist military personnel in carrying out the mission against ISIS while complying with international humanitarian law.”
  3. Teams have worked to assess, preserve, and protect damaged collections in Syria, Iraq, Nepal, Mali, and Egypt, during or following periods of armed conflict and natural disaster. In Nepal, for example, after the April 2015 earthquake, an SCRI team conducted a damage assessment and assisted in recovering and rehousing collections.

Why focus on protecting and preserving cultural heritage? Their website states: “Cultural heritage is not a renewable commodity. When it is gone, communities lose resources for economic development, tourism, and commerce, as well as knowledge, inspiration for creativity, and a sense of historically shared or connected identity.”

In 2018, Corine Wegener spoke at the Air University LREC Symposium, hosted by the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) about cultural property protection, and the importance of strengthening awareness about it in the military. She noted, “We need to foster that spirit of respect for cultural properties at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Culture matters not just in actions, but also, the places that people care about.” The AFCLC has been researching the issue of cultural property protection, and how to educate its officers on the topic. Taking into account a community or region’s cultural heritage, and the material objects that are of importance to that heritage, is a way to strengthen bonds with communities and better ensure mission success.

Interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative? Visit their website to find out what else they have done over the past ten years, and how you can get involved.

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