Rebuilding cultural heritage after disaster

After an earthquake devastated the Philippines, conservators went beyond conventional cultural conservation practices and involved the local community in the restoration of their churches.

The rubble of the Nuestra Señora de la Luz Parish Church following the 2013 earthquake in Bohol/Wikimedia.

In 2013, the Philippines was struck by its deadliest earthquake in 23 years.

More than 200 people died. Across the country, around 73,000 buildings and structures were damaged and more than 14,500 were totally destroyed.

The island province of Bohol, which sits near the centre of the Philippines, was one of the hardest hit areas. And at the time, authorities estimated that the entire population of the province was affected by the quake.

But it was the damage, and in some cases destruction, of more than ten heritage-listed churches in the region that came at significant cultural and economic cost for a population where 83 per cent of people identify as Catholic. The cost of restoring the churches was estimated at almost $29 million. But their significance to the local community was priceless.

The Nuestra Señora de la Luz Parish Church in Loon, Bohol, was reduced to rubble in the quake. Picture: Project Kisame/Flickr.

Dr Nicole Tse, an expert in conservation at the University of Melbourne, investigated the damage to the churches following the earthquake, working alongside the Philippines’ National Museum recovery team. Just gaining access to the sites through the devastation was challenging.

“The roads were blocked; there were no aeroplanes. Everyone was just so numb and struck by this terrible disaster,” says Dr Tse, who is based at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation.

“We’re dealing with human survival: Where does culture count in that?”

The team was initially concerned about the priority of the work amid so much destruction, but it quickly became apparent that the local community not only wanted their churches back, they wanted to be involved in the repair work itself.

“The situation with rebuilding cultural heritage after disasters is: What do you do? When do you do it? And how do you do it? Particularly the ‘when’: When does cultural heritage become important to people?” Dr Tse says.

“It’s hard to encapsulate in words the feeling when the tangible evidence of what you believe, which is central to your community and your way of life, is destroyed.”

She says this led to the strong community impulse to rebuild.

“The rebuilding of the church structures cements historical and familial links that go back centuries and move it in to the future.”

The people had a choice to make between rebuilding the existing churches or building brand new places to worship in. They elected to rebuild and repair the churches; a job which is expected to take between 10 and 20 years.

“This is an opportunity for skills development in Bohol too and that means conservation isn’t seen as just this hierarchical, professional sort of thing but it can be everyone’s responsibility,” she says.

Dr Tse, who regularly returns to Bohol to work with Father Ted Torralba of the Catholic Bishops’ permanent heritage committee to treat and document church paintings, says part of the challenge of this project is to honour the community’s request to keep all the objects within the church.

“The idea of an object being moved to somewhere half an hour away to another place was not an option,” she says.

“There is huge ownership of these collections. If I approach it from a professional point of view, it’s good to have a centralised lab where you can put these things together. But the challenges of keeping the objects in the church also mean that there’s a lot more community investment into what’s being done."

Read the full story in Pursuit