In Haiti, painstaking mural-restoration work due to begin

A fragment of a fresco depicting Jesus' baptism is one of the world-famous murals in the Holy Trinity Cathedral that survived the earthquake. Photo: Lauren Stanley
A fragment of a fresco depicting Jesus' baptism is one of the world-famous murals in the Holy Trinity Cathedral that survived the earthquake. Photo: Lauren Stanley
Published January 10, 2011

Two conservators working under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution will begin work in Port-au-Prince the week of Jan. 9 to prepare the three surviving murals at the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti’s Holy Trinity Cathedral for removal and eventual restoration.

Among the thousands of buildings damaged and destroyed by the Jan. 12, 2010 magntitude-7 earthquake was the diocese’s cathedral, whose interior was decorated by 14 murals depicting biblical stories and religious scenes in Haitian motifs. The paintings, completed in 1950-51, were crafted by some of the best-known Haitian painters of the 20th century.

The three murals, including ones depicting the baptism of Christ, the Last Supper and religious procession to the town of Jacmel, have been protected amid the cathedral ruins by scaffolding for months.

The removal process that Rosa Lowinger and Viviana Dominguez will initiate is expected to take several months, Richard Kurin, Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture, told Episcopal News Service Jan. 7.

The process will be painstaking and, in a sense, has already begun. Kurin and others said during a Nov. 8 webcast that conservators were testing the paint in fragments of the destroyed murals to determine what sort of facing adhesive could be used to remove the murals from the cathedral walls without lifting the paint.

Lowinger, a conservator of sculpture and architecture,  told ENS in an Jan. 10 e-mail that she will use her experience of removing mosaic and terrazzo murals from stone to plan and direct the removal of “large slabs of concrete from a stone/cement substrate” (that is, the wall inself). Dominguez, a paintings conservator with many years of experience on murals, is directing the aspect of the project that deals with the surface paint layer and its protection, according to Lowinger.

“We have been testing processes and coming up with protocols,” she said in her e-mail describing the work planned. “Now we are set to begin the work on the wall and training the Haitian technicians who will assist with the removal.”

Dominguez, who will arrive first, will conduct other tests concerning the murals’ paint and possible facing material. Later in the week, Lowinger said, she and Dominguez “will begin to test the actual removal of fragments and determine the best practices for sectioning the mural to assist removal.”

An essay that Lowinger wrote in July about her preliminary assessment work at the cathedral is here. The webpage also features a photo essay that includes a series of photos from Holy Trinity, beginning at the fourth slide.

Two photos in a Smithsonian slideshow here show some of the fragments. And another Smithsonian slideshow here shows a partial assessment of the cathedral ruins.

Stephanie Hornbeck, a former Smithsonian employee and now chief conservator and principal of Caryatid Conservation Services, said during the November webcast that she anticipates the remaining walls themselves will be razed because they are unstable and “could fall at any time.”

“At some point in the future we hope the murals can be included in the next version of the cathedral,” she said.

Kurin, who described the task of removing the murals as “like taking down a vertical jigsaw puzzle,” said the murals would be placed in foam trays for restoration work. They would then be held until a new cathedral is ready to house them. Kurin suggested the best method for future display would be in a “separate boxed installation,” rather than returning them to a wall.

Olsen Jean Julien, a Haitian architect and former minister of culture who leads the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery Project ( of which the mural work is a part, said during the webcast that Bishop Jean Zache Duracin gave permission in June for the work to be done. Julien noted that other objects, such as sculptures, were recovered from the cathedral rubble and are being restored.

G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, wrote in the January 2011 edition of Smithsonian Magazine of the impression that the murals made on him during a visit to the site in July. When the boys’ choir from the Holy Trinity music school sang at the Smithsonian in September, he wrote, he was reminded of hearing the group rehearse among the cathedral rubble in July.

“Singing Haitian children reminded me that even in the worst situations — earthquake recovery in Haiti will take decades — art and culture can help,” wrote Clough, who is also an earthquake engineer.

It is said that in the 1950s then-diocesan Bishop Alfred Voegli encouraged the artists to put the Bible in the Haitian context. To do so meant that elements of Voodoo, so pervasive in Haitian culture, were included, and Voegli was severely criticized at the time.

“Many people had left the church because they could not understand that,” Duracin told ENS in May 2010. It took years for people to realize the value of the murals, he added.

Kurin has said that what he called the “Haitization” of biblical stories portrayed in the murals makes them especially striking. “In that fact, there’s a respect for the people of Haiti in those murals … the art of those murals incorporates Haitians in that story and that’s very moving,” he said. “Those murals represent a coming together of different cultural traditions and making them particularly and especially Haitian. They’re unique; they’re beautiful.”

Also lost on the cathedral site were Holy Trinity Music School, Holy Trinity Professional School, primary and secondary schools and St. Margaret’s Convent, a convent of the Sisters of St. Margaret.

The Episcopal Church is in the early stages of a fund-raising effort to aid in the “initial phase of rebuilding” beginning with the Holy Trinity Cathedral complex, according to a Jan. 3 release from the Episcopal Church Foundation. Nearly all the diocese’s church buildings were effectively leveled by the earthquake and Duracin has asked that the initial effort be focused on the cathedral for its deep symbolism not just for the diocese but also for the country.

In November a report released during a meeting of many of the diocese’s current mission partners predicted that the first phase of post-earthquake reconstruction and development for the entire diocese will cost close to $197 million. The reported estimated it would take $34.7 million to rebuild the cathedral and another ($49.9 million to rebuild its adjacent complex of schools and the convent.

Information about donating is here and a webpage devoted to the appeal is here.

The Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project is being conducted in partnership with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities with assistance from three U.S. federal agencies: National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, the Hillman Foundation, the Haitian FOKAL foundation; UNESCO the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and the Broadway League.

The project operates out of a 7,500-square-foot, three-story air-conditioned building in Bourdon in the hills above Port-au-Prince that once housed the United Nations Development Programme, according to a Smithsonian news release. It is a place where objects retrieved from the rubble can be assessed, conserved and stored. Haitians are being trained to take over the conservation effort in a few years.

Smithsonian Magazine also included the cathedral murals in this article in its September 2010 issue. And the murals are part of a joint Smithsonian-William J. Clinton Presidential Center exhibit called “Haiti: Building Back Better.”

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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