How the Disintegration of Naples’ Cultural Heritage Affects You

Remnants of unfinished restoration work in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Naples, Italy
(Source)

Naples, Italy has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage site for 17 years, yet the local and national government have spent years mismanaging funds and neglecting much of its cultural heritage: approximately 200 churches and other historic sites have fallen into disrepair, stripped of their furnishings (including art) and/or left to rot due to lack of funds for conservation. Recent stories about the neglect and degradation of the city’s cultural sites have been spreading across the Internet, first with the report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and then with the English-translated rehash in The Art Newspaper. Another story in The Guardian, also published in January, discussed the arrests of two additional people in connection with the “‘premeditated, organized and brutal’ sacking” of the 16th c. Girolamini Library. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 historic documents and books have been stolen, though we may never know the full extent, as much of the library’s holdings were never properly catalogued. A petition has been initiated to strip Naples of its UNESCO status, as it is believed that the city is doing nothing to protect its heritage (though it should be noted that it is suspected that the Mafia may have some involvement, as they were behind the 2008 waste management crisis amongst many other crime issues in the area). The pillaging of the Girolamini Library prompted the director of the Vatican Museums to declare that the cultural heritage of Italy at large is vanishing, particularly in smaller institutions which do not have adequate security, and that “the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart.”

It can be easy for one to feel a detached sadness in this crisis, especially if one is separated from it by an ocean (and even more so if one is not generally engrossed by issues of cultural heritage and preservation). Indeed, The Art Newspaper‘s story in particular has a sort of “ruin porn”-air about it, with its beautiful pictures of hollowed out cathedrals and exclamation that one had better book a ticket to Naples now to see it before it completely falls apart. However, the disintegration of the cultural heritage of Naples and Italy at large is a catastrophe, not only to the Italians– to whom I can attest take extraordinary pride in their history, having witnessed it personally during my semester abroad in 2006– but to the world.  Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum
(Source)

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading