Preserving New Orleans History

Park Service Team Set to Rescue Years of Artifacts

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Their bags are packed with safety glasses, gloves, masks, boots and suits. As soon as they hit the ground in New Orleans, they plan to set up triage tents and long tables.

Then the emergency team from the National Park Service will begin its work: blotting, washing, drying, straightening and preserving centuries of historical artifacts that tell the story of one of the oldest U.S. cities.

The curators, archaeologists and historians of the Park Service's Museum Resource Center are not the bookish types who dwell in dusty stacks.

These are people who are trained in outdoor survival skills, are immunized against disaster area diseases, have helicoptered in and out of work sites and know how to identify poisonous snakes and spiders, said Pam West, director of the center.

Their biggest enemy is mildew.

"When we do retrieved artifacts, we're dealing in extreme mold," West said. "Anytime 48 hours pass, you get mold. You have to fight mold. We've seen it turn the most amazing colors -- bubble-gum pink once."

The preservationists dried and blotted a million artifacts from colonial Jamestown in Virginia after Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003. Last year, they used boats to get to 300,000 artifacts in the Fort Pickens museum near Pensacola, Fla., after Hurricane Ivan.

Once it gets the all-clear in the coming days, the preservation team will head to the Crescent City to retrieve documents, photographs, furniture and other pieces of history that have marked the rich life of a city founded in 1718 and occupied by the French, Spanish, Creoles, Americans, Confederates, fire, disease and water -- again and again.

There are photographs and musical instruments in the Park Service's jazz museum, musical scores in Louis Armstrong's home, archives at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve museum and the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, all floating in swampy, oily, polluted water.

Once the artifacts are pulled from the water, Park Service specialists can begin the work: laying out, sorting, stretching, drying. "Papers can be freeze-dried. Photos, furniture and furnishings can be washed and dried," West said.

Sometimes, they can clean objects and transport them for restoration at a better facility. But as is often the case in hurricane situations -- where humans, let alone objects can't get transportation, refrigeration or water -- curators have to work in less-than-ideal conditions. "I saw someone preserve a 20-by-20 photo right there on the spot once. They knew how to dry and blot and straighten it right there, in the middle of camp," West said.

The team also plans to work with universities and the residents of New Orleans, helping restore hundreds of years of memories.


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