Singing Haitian children reminded me that even in the worst situations—earthquake recovery in Haiti will take decades—art and culture can help. I first heard the Haitian Boys Choir last July as it rehearsed among the rubble of Port-au-Prince’s Holy Trinity Cathedral; I heard the boys again in September when they performed here at the Smithsonian Institution. Eleven of Trinity Cathedral’s 14 magnificent murals were destroyed; I was there viewing three surviving murals, painted by Haitian master artists in the 1940s and 1950s and now protected by scaffolding.
Although Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, it offers some of the Caribbean’s richest artistic and cultural traditions. But it was quickly apparent to me how many paintings and sculptures had been ripped or shattered. With the support of first lady Michelle Obama, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the State Department, Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, offered to help; the Haitian government welcomed the creation of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project ( haiti.sidu ).
Additional partners include the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit that protects cultural artifacts affected by armed conflict and disaster; the American Institute for Conservation, which trains and recruits conservators; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Broadway League; the Hillman Foundation; the Haitian FOKAL foundation; UNESCO; and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.
The project leased a building in Port-au-Prince for conservation studios and climate-controlled storage. Former Smithsonian conservator Stephanie Hornbeck oversees the technical work. Olsen Jean Julien, a Haitian architect and former minister of culture who was a program coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, is now the center’s manager. U.N. troops have provided engineering help and heavy equipment to carefully uncover buried artwork. By last summer’s end, the center was fully operational, treating 3,000 paintings, saving scores of pre-Columbian artifacts and historical documents and training dozens of Haitians. This spring we will share what we have learned with U.S. government agencies and professional organizations to help forge a more coordinated strategy for responding to future cultural crises. Meanwhile, the three murals are secure—and will be restored when the cathedral is rebuilt.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
In Case of Emergency, Pack Snowshoes
in 1933, a young married couple packed for what the husband described as a vacation. The unlikely items they assembled included a sled, an inflatable rubber boat, enough food to last for several weeks and two pairs of snowshoes. On July 9—a little more than four years after their wedding—Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh took off from Long Island, New York, in a single-engine Lockheed Sirius aircraft to scout possible commercial air routes over the Arctic for Pan Am.
The Lindberghs were fleeing a tragedy that had riveted the world. Intense press attention had followed the kidnapping and death of their first child, 20-month-old Charles Jr., the year before. Departing for the Arctic, for all its potential perils, must have seemed a welcome escape.
Today, Charles’ snowshoes, displayed alongside the Lindberghs’ recently restored airplane and other items from that flight, are on view in the newly opened Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
The first legs of the Lindberghs’ journey, which charted a northern air route to Europe, took the couple north through Canada, then over Greenland and Iceland to the European continent, on a flight path that remains very close to what commercial jetliners use today. To describe the territory they flew over as hostile is to understate the hazards. The Sirius was equipped with pontoons should the couple have to touch down in the frigid North Atlantic. But a forced landing on Greenland’s glaciers meant they would have to walk to safety.
In an article she wrote for National Geographic after the trip, Anne would recall the hardships they had faced, vividly evoking conditions in an unheated cockpit over the North Atlantic: “I was wearing, in addition to woolen underwear, one thin wool shirt, one thick wool shirt, one wool sweater, wool riding trousers, several pairs of wool stockings, fur-lined...helmet, and over everything [a] hooded white blanket parka,” she wrote. “I was quite warm except for my feet, which I sat on, and my hands, on which I put another pair of mittens. A third pair would have been very comfortable, but would have made my fingers too bulky to handle the radio key.”
The Lindberghs, says NASM curator Dorothy Cochrane, “had to be prepared for everything, so they planned meticulously,” beginning with detailed lists compiled by Charles. In one volume of her memoirs, Listen! The Wind (1938), Anne recalled “those impressive itemized pages labeled ‘Airplane and Engine Equipment’...‘Emergency Equipment for Forced Landing at Sea,’ ‘Emergency Equipment for Forced Landing on Land,’ ‘Emergency Provisions.’” Time and again, she wrote, “I had seen the countless objects themselves, sorted out, appraised, and weighed, before the trip had begun.” Each item had to be scrupulously weighed because each cost its weight in fuel. A packet of 27 fishhooks, for instance, tipping the scales at barely an ounce, equaled precious seconds of flight time.
Author Reeve Lindbergh, at age 65 the youngest of Charles and Anne’s six children, recalls that “my father was an inveterate list maker.” So much so that “we made fun of him. He had a list for each of us kids, with entries like ‘rakes left out in the rain,’ and he would follow us around with them. But for him, lists were a part of self-preservation. He always talked about calculated, acceptable risk.”
Much of the gear for the 1933 flight acknowledged the possibility of a forced landing, reflecting his recognition of all the things that could go wrong during long hours in the air over trackless ice. So why did Lindbergh take his wife along on such a demanding journey?
“Charles could have had any co-pilot he wanted,” says Cochrane, who is working on a book focusing on the period when the Lindberghs flew together. “But he never really considered anyone else. He had taught Anne to fly, and they were still young marrieds. She worked hard to learn Morse code and navigation, and was a true co-pilot.”
“That was what their relationship was all about,“ Reeve says. “She wanted to be part of his world, and they continued to work together long afterward, even on her books.”
Owen Edwards in a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions .
Bat Art Isn’t Bad Art
The town of Belfry, in Carbon County, Montana, lies on the route from Cody to Billings, just 11 miles north of the Wyoming border. It is chiefly known for cattle and sheep ranching, and for growing sugar beets, alfalfa and feed corn. With a population of just 219, it’s not a place that you usually think of for an art pilgrimage.
In fact, Belfry contains an outstanding work of public sculpture, The Bat in Belfry , which stands in front of the public high school, whose sports teams are called the Belfry Bats. The piece carries no label or inscription. But I heard it was fabricated in the school’s shop. And the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System says that the sculptors were Dale Cristman and Doug Brost and that the sheet-metal work was erected in 1980.
Anyone who has bats in his belfry will quickly grasp the concept. In addition to the piece’s rich verbal innuendos, it has remarkable formal qualities: what’s wonderful is how the “battiness” of the animal is reduced to a geometric essence. The piece’s handling of crisp angles reminds me of the famous statue of The Pharaoh Khafre , in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, with his head being protected by the wings of the falcon-god Horus. And there’s also a hint of early Cubism, reminiscent of Picasso’s Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table of 1908 in the Kunstmuseum in Basel.
Belfry’s Bat is American folk art at its best. It’s well worth a pilgrimage, particularly since it’s only a short distance from Bear Creek, where you can attend the pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse.
Bat sculpture is a fascinating sub-genre of the art form, and one of the greatest masters of bat sculpture was the relentlessly romantic and melodramatic 19th-century French thespian Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Most actresses of her era were distinctly chubby; Sarah was gaunt and haggard (batlike?) and pioneered a look that was the 19th-century’s equivalent of Goth.
For some reason she identified with bats. This was an age when huge hats helped define a woman’s personality, and when Sarah was not declaiming on the boards she paraded on the boulevards of Paris with a stuffed bat on her hat.
She also made sculpture of bats. And she was gifted—no kidding. I’m particularly fond of a wonderful sculpted bronze inkwell that she made; dated 1880, it’s a self portrait with bat wings in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. (The work is in tune with The Bat in Belfry , for there are elements of visual and verbal punning in both.) Bernhardt’s sculpture, Self-Portrait as a Sphinx , seems to caricature her batlike appearance and play on the fact that bats are as black as ink. Why would men be attracted to this vampire look? I won’t attempt to explain this, but Bernhardt knew how to captivate and manipulate men.
So far Bernhardt’s inkwell and Belfry’s Bat are my two favorite bat sculptures, but I’d be interested to learn of other examples. I must confess that I’ve only recently started to focus on this genre.