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Preservation Ordered

Museums Journal
May 2005

By Patrick Steel

An archive of unpublished writings fill Ernest Hemingway's decaying old house, now a museum, in Havana. No wonder that the building's survival is a priority, says Patrick Steel

It is every curator's nightmare: your collection is disintegrating, your storage facilities are inadequate and the building is crumbling around you. This was the situation facing Gladys Rodriguez, who curated the Museo Hemingway from 1980 to 1997.

Finca Vigia, built in the late 19th century and situated in San Francisco de Paula - now a suburb of Havana, Cuba - was bought in 1940 by the novelist Ernest Hemingway. The writer, who went on to win the Nobel prize in 1954, lived there for over 20 years. It was turned into a museum after his death in 1961 when his widow signed the house over to the Cuban government, along with the author's collection of books, photographs and letters, and drafts of his novels.

Visitors are not allowed inside, but instead look at the rooms and their contents through open windows and doors. The smallest details have been preserved, right down to the drinks tray with its bottles of Gordon's gin and Old Forester bourbon, and the writer's favourite armchair. It is exactly as it was in 1960 when Hemingway left for America, unaware that he would never return.

But the authenticity comes at a price. The house has no air-conditioning and Cuba's tropical climate has taken its toll on everything from the books to the chair covers to the building itself; added to this, the country's economic situation - it lost a major trading partner when the USSR collapsed and continues to suffer from a US embargo - means that resources to preserve these things are extremely hard to come by.

In spite of this, Rodriguez and the other staff have made monumental efforts to maintain the museum. The house has been restored twice since 1980 and the basement of the bungalow next to the house, where the photographs and papers were stored, has been dug out, extended, and equipped with a dehumidifier and two air conditioners. The staff themselves wielded pickaxes on the basement, a trunk was procured from the Tropicana nightclub as a dry place to store the photographs, and a filing cabinet and safe belonging to Hemingway were used to store the other documents.

And there the story might have ended, had it not been for a chance visit to the museum by Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Hemingway's publisher, Maxwell Perkins, while on holiday in 2001. On discovering who she was, the staff invited her to look inside and, inspired by this visit, she determined to drum up support for the museum in America.

When she returned to the US she and her husband, Frank, met a number of prominent Hemingway scholars, preservationists and politicians, which in turn led them to form the Hemingway Preservation Foundation (HPF). The HPF's stated aim is to restore and maintain the house and its contents.

With James McGovern, a Massachusetts congressman who favours normalized relations between America and Cuba, they sat down with Dagoberto Rodriguez, the chief of the Cuban Interests section in Washington, to talk about the possibility of using American resources and expertise to help save the museum.

Looking back, Phillips describes it as a breakthrough moment: 'Jim [McGovern] just hit the ground running that day and never stopped. From there he went to meet Marta Arjona, the president of Cuba's National Council of Cultural Patrimony (CNPC), and she gave it her blessing that our group would work with them to bring the resources and the technical expertise that would help them get the job done correctly.'

This meeting resulted in a signed agreement of cooperation in November 2002 between the Cuban government and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), an organisation based in New York with experience of overseeing joint projects between Cuba and the US. The agreement would see the SSRC coordinate US resources and expertise towards the preservation of the documents and photographs.

The originals would remain in Cuba, but digital copies would be made and housed at the John F Kennedy Library in Boston. Provision was also made for a US-backed survey to be carried out on the house with a view to conserving the house and providing storage facilities for the documents.

Sandra Spanier, a representative of the HPF and the editor of a forthcoming 12- volume book of Hemingway's collected letters, describes the significance of the agreement: 'The documents represent unmapped territory in Hemingway studies. To my knowledge they have not been seen by non-Cubans since 1961. This is the material that will enable scholars to flesh out the picture of Hemingway in that period. As for the house, when you read his letters it becomes clear that Finca Vigia was the one permanent home that he had in his life. It was the setting of his fiction and it meant more to him than any other home he ever had.'

But the agreement was only the first step for the American supporters: they still had to convince the Bush administration. In order to send resources and expertise to Cuba under the US embargo they would need special licences that, if granted, come with strict conditions from both the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Commerce.

The SSRC, which has worked in Cuba since 1997, already had the requisite licences; prior to the agreement with the Cuban government, a number of US preservation experts were already in Cuba under the SSRC's auspices. They were on hand to make recommendations and help to oversee the preservation work, while resources such as pens, paper and book-keeping equipment were also provided on the condition that anything not expended on the project would be returned to the US.

But an application in March 2004 by the HPF for licences to help restore the building was refused. A spokesman for the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs explains the reasoning behind the decision: 'We are interested in helping people preserve the informational material that was produced by Ernest Hemingway, but the house is a tourist attraction, and because permitting Americans to engage in a transaction that would preserve that house would have the effect of supporting the Cuban regime's tourist infrastructure, it is not consistent with our policy to permit that to happen. If the Cuban regime wishes to invest its resources into the preservation of this building, they can choose to do that. It is not our responsibility.'

This reasoning infuriates McGovern: 'The house is historically and culturally important, and if it crumbles, it's gone forever. This is a preservation emergency and we need to do everything we can to assist the Cubans in protecting this.'

Thomas Herman, the head of the corporate law at Smith Duggan in Boston and attorney for the HPF, goes further: 'The denial of the application is against the letter and the spirit of the law - illegal.'

Meanwhile, the Cubans are determined that the project will go ahead, with or without American help. 'There are many difficulties with the American government,' says Arjona, 'but we have plans to carry out this project. The Cuban Ministry of Culture will be paying for the restoration, which should come to around $250,000 if no other additional expenses appear during the work. The Cuban government is totally committed to this project and we hope that we will be finished by the middle of 2005.'

Herman is more sceptical: 'In spite of the diligent efforts of the Cubans, they simply don't have the resources [to maintain the house]; $250,000 is about a tenth of what it is going to cost to get this thing into the shape, and we still have to finish the document preservation.'

Fundraising for the preservation of both the documents and the house has proved difficult in the US. McGovern blames President Bush's inclusion of Cuba in the 'axis of evil' and the attitude of the executive. 'A lot of people see the administration rattling the sabres on Cuba and they're not sure if there will be any repercussions if they write that cheque, so they'd prefer to sit it out until it's a bit safer,' he says.

But things are looking up for the HPF: it has won the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and together they have launched another application for a research and restoration licence to do a feasibility study of the building. They also, Herman says, have several large grant applications pending.

If all goes according to plan, by this spring they will be fulfilling the HPF's remit. If not, they say they will look outside the US for support.

For Gladys Rodriguez, the licensing of the restoration by the US government would be a very welcome development. 'We want to wait for the help of our American colleagues and scholars,' she says, 'but it is so difficult. We can stop the damage in the house, so we have begun the restoration.'

The US decision regarding licences for the HPF is expected early this month.

 

 

 

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