Petr Justa - restorer working on projects from New Orleans to Mosul

Petr Justa

In today's One on One my guest is Czech restorer and lecturer at the University of Pardubice Petr Justa involved in important historic conservation projects in both the Czech Republic and abroad. Recently Petr Justa returned from New Orleans, where he and fellow specialists worked to assess the level of damage to that city's most famous cemetery. In the interview he discusses how that project developed and what he and fellow specialists found. Petr Justa - One on One.

"I had 10 years experience working in the historic Jewish cemetery in Prague and when we saw that Hurricane Katrina damaged their famous cemeteries in New Orleans - the St Louis No. 1 & 2 - we contacted an organisation in the United States and offered our help. To recover and to re-conserve and restore the cemetery: when we visited in April we did an assessment, a pilot (sample) restoration of several tombs and several stones and we presented what we can do. Now, together with Save Our Cemeteries and the archdioceses' office in New Orleans which owns the cemetery we prepared a large three year project."

How famous or significant are St Louis No.1 & 2?

"They are the oldest cemeteries in the southern United States: a lot of important people, including musicians, were buried there, and it's on a list of the 100 most important cultural monuments. Compared to European and in particular Czech cemeteries it's different because the tombs are 'small houses' - mausoleums - the tombs are quite large comparing to Czech graves. Also, the structure is completely different. In Prague we have pure stone structures while in New Orleans it's always a combination of brick structure covered by marble plates and marble decorations. There are also a few fully marble-decorated tombs but it's quite rare, since they used almost exclusively carrera marble imported from Italy. The transport had to be incredibly expensive, so only few people could afford it."

Generally, what state would you say that the cemetery was in at this time?

"I must say it was in quite a bad condition, not only because of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane made a lot of let's say mechanical damage: a lot of breaks, a lot of cracks. But, there were other long-term damages caused by long-term weathering of the surfaces: a lot of damage to the marble itself because there was a lack of conservation over the last fifty years. It's the same in Europe, the US, and other countries: fumes, factory production, acid rain, pollution. Marble is a very sensitive material and there is a reaction between acid rain and the surface of the stone. The relief, the first layer of the stone, fades away. After many decades you can feel that there was once something there but not really any more."

Just on an off note one of the cemeteries is famous for being the setting of a scene in the cult film 'Easy Rider'.

"Of course! For those who don't know the St Louis No 2 is only about one hundred metres from No 1. The graves too are almost about the same."

Would you say that you spend more time on projects like today or in the Czech Republic?

"My main field is now Iraq - projects that began there in 2004 as part of the Czech Republic's post-war aid to the Iraq republic."

What are some concrete sites that you are focusing on?

"There are two parts: the first is paper restoration and conservation. The first Iraqi request was to save the Iraqi National Library and Archive. It was attacked by Saddam's guards doing the last war and the building was very heavily damaged. So, the first project was that. The second involves architectural projects: one was the Al-Hadba minaret in Mosul and the other was the arch at Ctesiphon known as Al-Madain, one of the most important historic monuments in the world. Part of the old palace from the 1st century - the widest span in the ancient world. A very huge structure that is heavily endangered and the threat that it will collapse is very high now.

At the time that we visited Iraq it was closed off from the public because there were new attacks by insurgents so we had partners in Baghdad at the National Board of Antiquities and we asked them to collect samples to be investigated in the Czech Republic. Now we are preparing the material for conservation material, and we prepared sample for bricks to be used at the site."

What you're saying is that you won't be there personally to oversee the physical reconstruction because it's simply too dangerous to be there now.

"Yes. It's too dangerous now. We still hope that will change and a number of my colleague will go there to look at the situation. We are promised every year that it will be better in the future so we hope we will get some new information."

Iraq is known as the 'cradle of civilisation' for Babylon: I recall seeing in a documentary that Saddam had archaeological sites rebuilt according to his own designs. For someone like yourself this must be an absolute worst nightmare.

"Yes it's a disaster. I never saw this place, only in pictures, but it was heavily criticised in Iraq as well. But, you know, it's very hard to change it back: there is a huge amount of concrete there and concrete is a very 'hard' material connected with not so hard support - the original support, so if you begin removing the concrete you can do even more damage. It's very difficult decision now whether to re-re-conserve or to leave it for future generations to come with up a new idea of what do with Babylon."