Historical, artistic treasures in path of the hurricane

Some museums sent material out of the area before Katrina hit

Katrina's Wake

September 01, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

How do you reclaim a ruined treasure?

Once Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters have receded, the dead have been buried and the cleanup has begun, the people of Louisiana and Mississippi may face yet another devastating blow: the destruction of cherished artwork and historical documents.

In Biloxi, Miss., for instance, Beauvoir, the former home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has been badly damaged, officials said.

The situation in New Orleans is harder to assess because practically the entire city is a museum, and much of it is under 20 feet of water. Still, some news - not good but not awful - is trickling in.

The buildings that make up the Louisiana State Museum sustained some damage, but "the collections are in better shape than feared," according to curator Tamra Carboni, who is quoted on the American Association of Museums Web site.

The New Orleans Museum of Art, which sits on high ground and a raised foundation, survived the hurricane and flood, but its director, John Bullard, is worried about the sculpture garden. And the Ogden Museum of Southern Art was reported to be unscathed, but that was before the levees broke and communications ceased.

"Not even counting the French Quarter, every part of New Orleans has incredible historic resources," said John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It's absolutely gut-wrenching to see this destruction on top of the human suffering."

Members of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force are scheduled to conduct a telephone conference call today to come up with a plan for assessing the damage to artwork and historical documents. But it may be weeks or months before the loss is known, said Dennis Fiori of the Maryland Historical Society.

Hildreth said Beauvoir, a 1 1/2 -story home built on a slight rise, was under as much as 30 feet of water at one point.

"It's maybe 500 yards from the beach, ground zero in Biloxi," he said. "We'd heard at first that it had been destroyed, but I found out today that it's still standing on its foundations. The galleries [porches] are gone, and there has been significant damage to the house. We don't know yet how all the papers in Davis' presidential library have fared."

The Historic Trust has asked the National Guard to be posted at the site to deter looters.

New Orleans, frequently described as the most European city in America, has more than 40 museums, including the Musee Conti Wax Museum, Historic Voodoo Museum and Historic New Orleans Collection, a treasure trove of fragile maps, photographs and other antique documents.

And that doesn't count the privately owned Gitter-Yelen Art Study Center, with its collection of Japanese art from the 17th through the 19th centuries. (Kurt Gitter, the center's founder, is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University.)

A few days before Katrina hit, New Orleans' museums sent out e-mail messages to institutions in other cities requesting emergency storage space, according to Laura Lindsay, interim executive director of the Louisiana State University Museum of Art. "A lot of work was done to get art in safe places before the hurricane came through," she says.

Hildreth said a surprising number of precious artifacts can be repaired - if they aren't stolen.

In 1966, the Arno River flooded and swamped Florence, Italy, a city with a distinguished cultural history. About 1,500 works of art, many dating back centuries, were disfigured or destroyed.

Thousands of volunteers dubbed "mud angels" came from around the world and worked 10 to 14 hours a day to help save the city's masterpieces.

Hildreth says he is heartened that he has begun to receive similar offers.

"Pages and canvas can dry out," he says. "Mud can be washed off. It's painstaking, and it can take decades, but in some cases, it can be done."

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