When disaster strikes

Disasters affecting cultural heritage are almost always miserable events wherein a lot of heritage materials and knowledge are lost. However, disasters can also act as catalysts for rapid change and the formulation of new techniques. We often see human strength and resilience during disasters affecting cultural heritage.

The 1966 Florence flood was one such event where many new techniques for the conservation of historical objects were rapidly developed. In this article, I will be reflecting on how people responded to save heritage after the floods of 1966.

There were many dimensions to this response, depending on where the responders lived, and on their backgrounds and positions in society. Those who lived close to Florence remember travelling to Florence immediately to help in the aftermath. Those who lived far away also arrived, often at their own cost. They worked tirelessly to rescue the heritage items affected by the floods. These volunteers are popularly known as Angeli del Fango or Mud Angels. 

Those who could not travel to Florence contributed money, materials and knowledge to save heritage. People contributed to the initiatives started by various committees in different countries. This was an extraordinary response by people all around the world. For example, in New York, children aged 8–9 years who had not visited Florence raised money through cookie sales to save the heritage of Florence.

The exceptional response these committees received provides us with an understanding of how we can involve non-experts in heritage rescue and conservation.

This has been a brief overview of my 2020 paper published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, which is available to read for free at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212420919305096 

View of Important cultural institutions located on the banks of the Arno. Photography by Pakhee Kumar.
Fig. 2 – Important cultural institutions are located on the banks of the Arno. Photography by Pakhee Kumar.

Dr Pakhee Kumar is a lecturer (teaching) in sustainable heritage and data analysis at the UCL Institute of Sustainable Heritage. She is a conservation architect with broad experience in heritage conservation and management. Her research focuses on the use of social media and crowdsourcing during disasters affecting cultural heritage. She teaches in MSc Sustainable Heritage and MSc Data Science for Cultural Heritage. Her modules cover sustainable heritage, heritage science, data management and digital technologies for the historic built environment. She is also the deputy programme director of the MSc Sustainable Heritage.

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