Cultural heritage items, from presidential letters and great works of art to community archives, are vulnerable to decay over time as well as a wide range of natural and man-made disasters. Since the National Endowment for the Humanities was established, the agency has worked to ensure that our cultural heritage is both accessible now and preserved for future generations.
A 2004 survey, commissioned by the Institute for Museum and Library Services found that 80% of collecting institutions in the United States lacked a written emergency plan for their collections, putting billions of items at risk. Half of U.S. institutions lacked a long-term preservation plan for their collections. More than 820 items held by collecting institutions were described as in need or in “urgent need” of preservation care. In response, the NEH has prioritized the education and training of cultural institution staff in preservation care and emergency planning, in addition to supporting emergency response networks throughout the U.S.
of collecting institutions lacked a written emergency plan, according to a 2004 survey.
Through its “field school” programs, the NEH supports education and training for staff of small to mid-sized institutions in every state. Funding to nationally-recognized preservation centers like the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the Midwest Art Conservation Center, and the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts helps these institutions offer low- and no-cost support to organizations throughout the United States. Through online and in-person professional development programs, conservators have access to the most up-to-date preservation techniques. Organizations without in-house preservation staff learn to care for their collections and develop preservation plans. These programs have a particular impact in areas of the country like Appalachia and the Gulf South, where a great deal of our cultural heritage is held by small organizations operating on shoestring budgets.
The NEH supports educational programs that help staff at cultural institutions prepare for disasters. Through its regional partners, the NEH also ensures that staff from small organizations throughout the United States have access to emergency preparedness training and response. Courses on how to create a disaster plan or salvage waterlogged books, as well as 24/7 emergency hotlines for disaster response, ensure that organizations are able to plan for the future as well as respond in the moment. And NEH-funded resources such as the Field Guide to Emergency Readiness and Response, the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel, and water remediation instruction videos are widely used by cultural heritage professionals throughout the world.
The NEH supports professional networks in areas prone to disaster, establishing the infrastructure necessary for effective disaster response. With the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC), the NEH supports the Alliance for Response: 28 community networks, from Seattle to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that build cooperative partnerships and ensure that vulnerable regions are prepared for disasters before they happen. The Texas Alliance for Response (TX-CERA) was instrumental in Houston’s recovery following Hurricane Harvey in 2017—and then traveled to Florida to support cultural institutions affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
–Elizabeth Nunan, Co-Chair, Alliance for Response NYC