For the report as a PDF file, click here.

HERITAGE PRESERVATION PUBLISHES FIRST COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF LOSS
TO NATION’S CULTURAL HERITAGE AS A RESULT OF 9/11

Report of Losses to Artistic, Historic and Archival Heritage
in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon Includes Results of Survey
of Affected Institutions Regarding Emergency Response Procedures

book cover

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 3, 2002)---Although the nation suffered incalculable personal and economic losses on September 11, 2001, little has been written about the destruction of America’s cultural and historical legacy -- until now. Heritage Preservation, the nation’s leading non-profit advocate for the proper care of our cultural heritage, has just published Cataclysm and Challenge, a 26-page report offering the first comprehensive study of what was lost -- both in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon -- on that day. The report also highlights findings obtained from a survey -- conducted in the months immediately following 9/11-- of 122 museums, libraries, archives and other collecting institutions in Lower Manhattan. It reveals significant lessons that may help protect our nation’s cultural heritage from future disasters.

The survey, supported by the Bay Foundation in New York City and the National Endowment for the Humanities, included questions related to emergency preparedness, response and recovery. Heritage Preservation prepared the report on behalf of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a partnership of 34 federal agencies and national associations founded with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1995 to help protect museums, archives, libraries and historic sites from disasters.

“While basic emergency response procedures worked well to protect treasured collections on 9/11, the survey results show that there are significant gaps in preparedness,” said Lawrence L. Reger, President of Heritage Preservation. “Quick-thinking staff members who turned off air intake systems saved valuable collections from corrosive soot and debris. However, more than half the organizations surveyed had only minimal emergency response procedures. Our cultural heritage is vulnerable to potential future disasters.”

The organizations that participated in the survey included Fraunces Tavern Museum, Henry Street Settlement/Louis Abrons Art Center, Museum of African Art, Museum of Jewish Heritage, National Museum of the American Indian, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York Public Library – New Amsterdam branch, South Street Seaport Museum, and Trinity Church Archives.

Among the Heritage Preservation survey’s findings:

  • Only 46% of the institutions surveyed had a written emergency plan, and only 42% had staff trained in disaster response procedures.
  • Only 60% of respondents had a current collections catalogue or inventory, and more than half did not keep an off-site record of their inventory. Had the destruction of 9/11 been more widespread throughout Lower Manhattan, many collecting institutions would have been left with no complete record of what had been lost.
  • Although the events of 9/11 were caused by an unprecedented act of terror, the study found that standard emergency plans and responses turned out to be the most effective way of dealing with the resulting damage.
  • A full 80% of survey respondents reported interruptions in communications in the weeks following 9/11; 67% experienced a decrease in public visitation. Although the survey did not set out to examine economic impact, respondents indicated that decreased revenue was one of their primary concerns and was closely linked to communications problems and the drop in public attendance.
  • In light of the events of 9/11, 68% of respondents said their staffs would benefit from emergency management training; 67% intended to create new emergency plans or revise existing ones.

Based on survey findings and extensive follow-up interviews conducted by Heritage Preservation, Cataclysm and Challenge offers specific recommendations concerning emergency planning for collecting institutions. Key among these are calls for increased staff training and for current collections inventories. The report also calls for more effective communications between the emergency management and cultural heritage fields. It urges museums, libraries and archives to begin a dialogue with local emergency officials before disaster strikes. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force will address this issue in the next year.

The recommendations are designed to address any type of emergency, and they apply to collecting institutions throughout the country. The report encourages
professional associations, government agencies and private foundations concerned about cultural heritage to make disaster management a priority.

Cataclysm and Challenge also describes the diverse cultural heritage universe that
existed in and around the World Trade Center before the attacks of 9/11. It provides an overview of the artwork, historic buildings and artifacts, archives and libraries that were destroyed or damaged, as well as the condition of those that survived. The report demonstrates that the cultural heritage lost included not only well known works of art such as Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, Skygate-New York, and Juan Miro’s World Trade Center Tapestry, but also archives and artifacts that represent the richness of the country’s history. Other examples of materials lost include:

  • An estimated $4 million in records, equipment and historical data from the archives of the Helen Keller International Foundation -- including first editions of Keller’s books, priceless photographs and original letters.
  • Thousands of artifacts from an 18th century African burial ground and more than one million artifacts from the 19th century working class neighborhood of Five Points – discovered in 1991 during excavation for the Foley Square federal courthouse and one of the most important archaeological finds in the history of Lower Manhattan.
  • Archives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey dating back to the 1920s, documenting the construction of the World Trade Center and other New York landmarks.

    In spite of these irreplaceable losses, stories of discovery and resourcefulness also emerge from the report:
  • At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, automated shutdown of outside air vents failed when electrical power was cut off to the area. With the Twin Towers ablaze in the background, museum engineers climbed to the roof, hand cranked the vents closed, and stayed to turn off water valves even as police warned of the Towers’ collapse and ordered the area evacuated. When staff were able to return to the building they found not a trace of dust inside.
  • Months after the disaster, 100,000 photographic negatives belonging to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were found at the World Trade Center site. Ranging in condition from ruined to pristine, these negatives convey a pictorial history of the metropolitan transportation system that includes the building of the George Washington Bridge and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
  • Bent Propeller, a stabile by Alexander Calder, was one of the best-known works of art at the World Trade Center and was presumed destroyed. Shortly after the disaster, the artist’s grandson Alexander Rower began distributing flyers that described the sculpture to recovery workers. As a result, more than 35% of the sculpture has now been found.

Selected highlights in the study illustrate how individual institutions coped with the aftermath of the disaster – ranging from the Seamen’s Church Institute’s role as a refuge for rescue workers to the historic fireboats that pumped water to combat the blaze. A special section is devoted to the destruction of cultural property at the Pentagon, which includes historical documents dating back to the early 19th century and art collections of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Heritage Preservation is a national non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. In partnership with the FEMA, it sponsors the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. For the complete text of the report as a PDF, click here.

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