April 5, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 34
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Planned Fla. museum seeks personal links to Haiti’s history

Jennifer Kay

MIAMI — The Haitian Heritage Museum is, for now, boxed in antioxidant cardboard in a climate-controlled storage locker.

The 20 vibrant paintings and pieces of hand-carved folk art will one day hang in a museum hall scheduled to break ground in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood later this year.

Eveline Pierre and Serge Rodrigue, the museum’s founders and only full-time staff, hope to build a permanent collection of about a thousand items chronicling the Haitian Diaspora, especially in the United States, and the traditions they brought to new homes.

As Pierre and Rodrigue seek artifacts for future exhibits, however, they are finding that some things get lost in migration — for example, efforts at proper preservation and documentation proving authenticity.

“A lot of the history of the country really lives with the inhabitants of this country. They take it with them,” Rodrigue said. “These things go down through the generations. Grandmothers put it in a paper bag and, because they know the value of these things, pass it down to their kids.”

The museum’s nascent collection includes a wooden bust of a woman in African dress with wire earrings; bright, Voodoo-themed paintings by Andre Pierre, considered one of Haiti’s greatest painters; a painted wooden screen that was commissioned for a Miami department store window display in the 1970s; and artwork painted on boards used in home construction that Haitian artists used when they couldn’t afford canvases, Pierre said.

Also promised, Pierre said, are pieces of a wooden freighter that ran aground on Key Biscayne in 2002 with more than 200 Haitians aboard. The museum also seeks books, film footage, stamps and military memorabilia.

Briefly unpacking the artwork on a recent afternoon, Pierre and Rodrigue recalled some of the items they wish they had — letters written by Haitian soldiers overthrowing their French colonial masters, and documents signed by Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the leaders of the slave rebellion that led to Haiti’s independence in 1804. The would-be donor broke contact when asked to prove their authenticity.

“I’m pretty sure they were authentic with my personal eye, with the training I’ve gotten. They were truly deteriorating, but had the actual signature that appeared to match other signatures on record,” Pierre said.

In considering potential acquisitions, Pierre and Rodrigue follow the guidelines for collections stewardship set by the American Association of Museums. Those standards include legally documenting and caring for the collections, and providing for their long-term security. Donors are asked to sign a legal agreement giving the museum custody of an object, even on loan; the museum has to submit its inventory and records documenting each object for AAM accreditation.

“In Haiti, there’s been a lot of coups d’etat, a lot of buildings ransacked and valuables stolen,” Pierre said. “We don’t want to run into a Spielberg situation. We want to make sure we start off on the right foot. If you can’t tell us or prove the authenticity of the item, we’d rather not deal with that.”

The FBI recently disclosed that filmmaker Steven Spielberg had a stolen Norman Rockwell painting in his collection. Spielberg had bought it from a legitimate art dealer in 1989 without knowing it had been taken from a gallery more than a decade earlier.

By weeding out artifacts looted or traded on the black market during Haiti’s many changes of government before its first exhibit, the Haitian Heritage Museum hopes to avoid having to return items once their true histories become known.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will be sending back to Italy an ancient vase known as the Euphronios Krater, dug up near Rome by looters just before it was sold in 1972. The Getty in Los Angeles agreed to return to Greece an ancient gold funerary wreath it bought in 1993; the artifact had also been looted.

New regulations enforced by the Haitian government’s office for historical preservation have reduced artifact theft in the Caribbean country, and the national museum’s collection is secure, said Ralph Latortue, the Haitian consul general in Miami. The culprits in past thefts, he said, weren’t always Haitians taking advantage of lax security — tourists took things like cannonballs from the Citadel, a 19th century coastal fortress.

While supporting the Miami museum project, Latortue also said if Haitians abroad have very valuable artifacts, of course the government would prefer to see them on display in Haiti.

“It should be a question of morality for every single Haitian. If they have a very important historical piece, even if it was part of your family, it is supposed to stay in the country,” Latortue said.

Some acquisitions will have to wait until the Haitian Heritage Museum opens a secure building with more space. A historian has offered his collection of Haitian coins for an exhibit the museum founders plan to call “The Riches of Haiti” in contrast to Haiti’s current image as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Until then, “he’s in Haiti. So’s the stuff, because it’s very valuable,” Rodrigue said.

They also face the challenge of persuading potential donors that their family keepsakes have historical value, said Marcia Zerivitz, the chief curator and founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida. Zerivitz began collecting photographs, clothing, diaries and other items from Florida synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in the 1980s for a traveling exhibit that eventually developed into the Miami Beach museum.

“It was very challenging to convince people that we needed a place to preserve our history. Every ethnic group should have a place to be able to tell their story,” said Zerivitz.

Once the museum is established, the challenge becomes keeping a growing collection focused. Some donations should be rejected if they don’t fit the museum’s mission, Zerivitz said — but not necessarily if they lack all the historical documentation, particularly in a migrant community.

“I would take it anyway. History starts somewhere,” Zerivitz said. “The Jews have had to move, after having been slaughtered and persecuted everywhere. Whoever owns the item, the history starts with them.”

(Associated Press)

Eveline Pierre (left) and Serge Rodrigue stand inside a climate controlled storage room that houses an array of Haitian artwork and historical documents. The room is part of the larger Haitian heritage Museum in Miami, which is scheduled to break ground in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood later this year. (AP photo/Lynne Sladky)

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