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Book – Cultural Emergency

Disaster management has become a more widely discussed topic in recent years. It is not necessarily that there are more devastating catastrophe happening, but that it is discussed and reacted upon in a different way. Word wide connections have grown stronger and a sense of globalnes is starting to settle. It is no longer just the isolated thinking about individual states or regions, but more and more a global image is growing.

Emergency situations are then also portrayed differently and in more detailed, but also quicker. The earthquake that struck Japan on 2011-03-11 this year came through he media and especially social networks, almost in real time.

Cultural Emergency
Image by Joel Saget taken from designdaba / Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia just after the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Beside basic humanitarian needs such as drinking water, food and medical supplies there are other aspects that are supporting a community or societies coping with a calamity. Those elements of cultural support like architecture as for example in the case of the ‘Marché au Fer’ – Iron Market in Port-au-Prince Haiti, or knowledge in the form of a library as in Sarajevo’s National Library in 1999 or museum as in the case of the National Museum of Baghdad in 2003 or cultural achievements such as the Olympic site in Greece or the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan are aiming to stabilise society in general and providing suport in the form of identity and culture.

In a new NAi publishers book Cultural Emergency in Conflict and Disaster the discussion around these efforts of delivering cultural emergency respons (CER) is launched. It is presented around the efforts of the Dutch Prince Claus Fund which has supported various regions in their bid to deal with a dramatic implosion of everyday life due to a striking disaster.

Cultural Emergency
Image taken from designdaba / Iraqui National Deputy Director Muhi Hasan holds his head in his hands as he sits on destroyed artefacts on 13 April 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. The museum was severly looted during the proceding days.

In his foreword H.R.H. Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands addresses the pressing question “Why should we try to save works of art when people are in desperate need for shelter, food and medicin? Why invest in culture when people may be dying?” He responses with three answers. Cultural heritage provides identity for individuals and society and the support, protection or restauration of it confers value and respect. Furthermore culture can strengthen social resilience, human dignity and a sense of continuity. But he also points out that such cultural emergency response is not delivered independently, but is in conjunction with basic humanitarian needs. He makes it clear that it is not about saving one over the other, but to save both.

Cultural Emergency
Image taken from designdaba / ‘All we are wrecking is stone’ was the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s description of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in March 2001, the largest standing statues of Buddha in the world.

The publication cover both element, a theoretical discussion and reports of practical experience. The Prince Clause Fund has delivered a range of support to locations around the world and across cultures to discuss aspects in detail, but it is essential in this discussion to allow a range of perspectives and experiences to be presented. With this publication such a collection has been brought together and gives a good impression of the debate but also practice.

The response to disaster beyond sending in money is very important and charities in general are putting a lot of emphasis on sustainable support that is long lasting and effective. There has been a lot of effort for example in Haiti to enable rebuilding of housing and architecture practices from around the world have helped, as for example Steven Holl Architects. However it is important that the local structures are respected and local people are integrated and responsible for what is happening and how it is happening to largest extend possible. Emergency respons, especially such cultural support has to happen with the people.

This publication will be launched in the Peace Palace in The Hague on 6 September on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Prince Claus Fund.

Cultural Emergency
Image taken from designdaba / The book is designed by Irma Boom. Book cover has a specially designed scratch surface (just like these luck number tickets).

Klein Goldewijk, B., Frerks, G. & Plas, E.V.D. eds., 2011. Cultural Emergency in Conflict and Disaster, Rotterdam: NAi publishers.