Turkey and Syria earthquakes — What can museums do for their community during a crisis?
by Tecla Trupia
On February 6, 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and a series of strong tremors and aftershocks hit southeast Turkey and northwest Syria. Two weeks later on February 20, an additional 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey. The death toll is reported to be around 46.000 victims. About 100.000 people have been injured and the World Health Organization says that 26 million people need assistance across both countries. Hundreds of thousands of families are facing homelessness during the coldest months of the year across a region already ripped apart by the nearly 12-year conflict in Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis.
What survivors in Turkey and Syria are experiencing is a severe humanitarian crisis and people all over the world are donating to help them. As much as every effort and contribution counts in situations like this, we must address and acknowledge what cultural institutions as historical authorities and role models can actively do to lead the way in helping those in need. Other than donating money, cultural institutions have the means and resources to play an active role in the recovery and safeguarding of their communities.
Usually, museums are located in huge buildings. This makes museums able to offer temporary shelter for displaced people otherwise facing homelessness and in many cases, low temperatures and harsh weather conditions. Not only are visitors’ spaces often wide and spacious, but nearly every museum utilizes large storage spaces that could be repurposed as safe and dry place for essential goods such as food, water, supplies and medical equipment.
In addition to providing temporary housing situations for survivors, museums and cultural institutions have the resources, skills and expertise to provide mental health support through events and workshops. By inviting the affected community to a safe space where they could visit collections, museums can offer survivors a space to process grief, heal and gain back at least some of the lost sense of routine and normalcy. As pillars of knowledge and culture, museums can also provide education and resources to the local community on disaster preparedness. By planning ahead and analyzing potentially dangerous situations in times of stability, museums can help their community actively engage in reducing damage and providing support. As bearers and providers of culture and history, it is museums’ moral responsibility and best interests to provide their workers, visitors and the community around them with skills and expertise on how to act in difficult situations, fostering knowledge of past similar events. By working together, we can learn from the lessons of the past and prepare better emergency plans.
Furthermore, the large audience and relevance museums usually have on social media could also be a great starting point for collectin donations, raising awareness, spreading news and updates and supporting survivors, volunteers, relief workers, rescuers, organizations and providers.
This proposition is far from a novel concept. Relevant examples and case studies are the Museum of New Zealand / Te Papa Tongarewa and the Chuetsu Earthquake Memorial Corridor. In 2016, The Museum of New Zealand /Te Papa Tongarewa faced minimal damage after the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake. Being built on rubber blocks that absorb the shock and vibration of earthquakes, this architecture is able to protect the building, collections and people and it works as an educational site as well, where visitors can see and learn about the construction and disaster risk.
Similarly, after the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake that occurred in Japan in 2004, four museums and three parks were developed to act as cultural hubs to preserve memory of the events and educate people on earthquakes and disaster prevention. Thanks to testimonials of the local people affected at the time, the museums also shed light on the sense of community.
Museums should be active participants in society that seek out and form relationships with the surrounding community. They should act as places people refer to in the long term as leaders and trusted members of their support network and as resilient pillars of society that are able to set the example and lead the way, even in times of uncertainty and disaster. Cultural institutions’ should aim to inspire and empower the people around them by providing a space for collective growth and development, promoting a communal effort to make the future more sustainable and inclusive.
We urge museums and cultural institutions to question their notions of community and support and actively engage in improving their involvement in the network they are part of.
As a final note, we kindly invite anyone who has the means to donate to the following organizations and to look for local initiatives near them such as fundraising events, solidarity screenings, donations and collection points as well as Turkish and Syrian Community Centers that might be organizing these kinds of activities.
Heyva Sor https://www.heyvasor.com/en
Syrian Arab Red Crescent https://sarc.sy/home/
You can find further resources on disaster reduction risk practices for museums here.
For more information on what museums can do to be more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable pillars in their community, you can download our Social Sustainability Ki Book.
Tecla Trupia (she/they) is a Berlin-based writer and editor, passionate about arts and culture.
She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Heritage in Milan. Their curiosity makes them eager to learn and explore the world through their writing. She is pleased to contribute to KiCulture with her creativity as part of the Communications Team.