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Cedric Stephens Preserving Jamaican artefacts from climate hazards

Architect, conservationist, and Gleaner columnist Patricia Green, PhD, wrote an excellent piece two weeks ago that bore the headline ‘Preserving Jamaica’s Tangible Heritage’.

The headline was wrong. Dr Green wrote about the nation’s cultural heritage – tangible and intangible. UNESCO discusses both. ICH or intangible cultural heritage, it says, “often has tangible objects, artefacts or places associated with it; it is also something different from tangible heritage, for example, the properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage listed on the World Heritage List”.

Because intangible heritage is constantly recreated, the concept of “authenticity” applied to World Heritage properties cannot be used for ICH. The strategies for safeguarding tangible heritage cannot be transferred mechanically to the effort to safeguard ICH, which often requires quite different approaches and methods. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of adopting integrated approaches to safeguarding the tangible and intangible heritage of communities and groups in ways that are “consistent and mutually beneficial and reinforcing”.

The Jamaica National Heritage Trust, which has the responsibility under law “to ensure that the best of the country’s legacy of historic buildings, archaeological sites, and landscapes are preserved, maintained, and protected”, Dr Green wrote, should ‘designate’ about 30 additional items to its existing portfolio.

My recent visit to East Street and the National Museum of Jamaica in Kingston inspired today’s article. While there, I saw, among other things, Taino, Ubuntu, Port Royal, and the treasures, mysteries and stories artefacts, essential elements of the country’s cultural heritage. They covered the period from 650 A.D. to the 20th century, and, according to sources, represent a small part of the collection of artefacts housed in the Institute of Jamaica complex.

What are the direct and indirect impacts of the record-high temperatures on preserving, maintaining, and protecting the artefacts that comprise the country’s cultural heritage? This question is being posed against our nation’s history of failing to properly manage the affairs of the Cornwall Regional Hospital, which opened in 1974. This led to cascading problems with ‘the air-conditioning system, compromised walls and foundation, a leaking roof, leaking pipes in the walls, a compromised electrical system, and air quality and ventilation issues in the operating theatre room and generally throughout the building.’ The price tag for the restoration of Cornwall Regional, according to WiredJamaica, is US$14.1 billion, nearly three times the original US$5 billion estimate.

The National Centers for Environmental Information reported that the global average temperature for July 2023 was ranked the highest since global records began in 1850.

For fiscal years 2022-23 and 2023-24, the amounts allocated to the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport, under which the Institute of Jamaica and its divisions fall, represent less than one per cent of the national budget. They grew by 14.09 per cent from $4.4 billion to $5.02 billion between 2022 and 2024. These facts, the Cornwall Regional fiasco, and Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton’s recent disclosure that “less than half of the medical equipment in the country’s hospitals was dysfunctional due to poor maintenance”, were top of mind as I viewed a few examples of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Are there international best practices for the preservation of artefacts? Are the spaces where they are stored and the conditions under which they are displayed in compliance with the standards? Is climate change exacerbating these threats?

The auditor general and the Auditor General Department employees are tasked with “conducting independent audits by acceptable, professional, and ethical standards and issuing appropriate reports on the use of public resources”. The nation’s artefacts are part of the public resources. Has the auditor general ever undertaken an audit of the museum complex on East Street? If not, why not?

What are the hazards to which our artefacts are exposed? The National World War Two Museum of New Orleans identified seven risks to which historical artefacts are exposed as follows:

1. Light: Too much light speeds the deterioration of photographs, textiles printed or handwritten paper, and furniture. Historic objects should be protected from excessive light levels, especially from sunlight and fluorescent light, which contain high amounts of ultraviolet radiation–which is the most harmful form of light.

2. Temperature: Too high or too low a temperature (or rapid temperature swings) can damage rubber, wood, metal, etc. Historic memorabilia should be stored in spaces with climate-control systems (heating and air conditioning). A few of the air-conditioning units were not working during my visit.

3. Humidity: Humidity that is too high encourages pests and mould growth on paper, textiles, and parchment and promotes rust on metal. Humidity that is too low can cause objects to become brittle. Organic objects absorb and release moisture depending on the relative humidity of their environment and need stable humidity. Historic memorabilia should be stored in an area with constant moisture (45 to 55 per cent). I do not recall seeing any dehumidifiers during my visit.

4. Pests: Different types of historic materials attract different pests. Roaches and silverfish are attracted to paper and books. Moths are attracted to protein fibres such as silk and wool. Termites are attracted to wood.

5. Human beings: People are one of the greatest threats to historical objects, not only due to surface compounds, such as oil, sweat and make-up that they carry on their skin, but also because we continue to use historical objects. These oils and other surface substances are transferred to the entity during handling. Wear cotton or nylon gloves when handling historical paper, textiles, photographs, and wooden and metal objects.

6. Chemical reactions: Certain materials, such as metal and marble, react to chemicals in the air. This concerns outdoor objects such as marble sculptures, iron architectural elements, etc. Chemicals from wooden compounds, such as formaldehyde and acidic gases, can also harm historic objects.

7. Inherent vice: Some objects of incompatible materials, such as wood, leather, and paint, have built-in deterioration risks.

Notably, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods were omitted from the list. They pose major threats to museums in Jamaica. Experts have predicted that global warming will cause more frequent and intense storms, triggering more flood losses.

It seems unlikely that the culture ministry will be allocated a more significant share of the national budget to expand its portfolio as Dr Green recommended. In the short term, however, executives at the East Street museum complex should be laser-focused on evaluating how climate change impacts the artefacts entrusted to them for safekeeping. It cannot be business as usual.

Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: or

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