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Making connections

Monday, June 23, 2014
More respect and resources are needed to help T&T’s National Museum in Port-of-Spain say local artists and historians.

Most cities have museums where the country’s national artefacts are put on displays. Some museums are internationally famous like the British Museum in London where visitors can see King Tut tomb, Moma in New York, known for its quirky exhibitions or the Louvre in Paris where thousands flock every day to see La Joconde, better known as the Mona Lisa. 


Museum Day was on May 18 and the International Council of Museums (Icom) and 30,000 museums in 120 countries, including T&T, devoted a month to celebrating museums and their role in society. 


In T&T, five of the country’s more popular museums saw an increase in footfall as the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration encouraged the public to visit the National Museum and Art Gallery of T&T in Port-of-Spain, Angostura Museum and Barcant Butterfly Collection in Laventille, Central Bank Museum in Port-of-Spain, UWI’s Zoology Museum on their St Augustine Campus and the Tobago Museum located at Fort King George, Scarborough Hill, Tobago. 



Museum collections make connections 



Museum collections make connections was the theme for Museum Day this year and Icom says, “This theme reminds us that museums are living institutions that help create bonds between visitors, generations and cultures around the world.” 


Locally the theme has been interpreted as an opportunity “to decode identity” and the ministry’s double page newspaper advertisement urges that the public use it to “really understand our country, our environment, economy, government, history.” 


“Our collections make connections,” said National Diversity and Social Integration minister, Dr Rodger Samuel. “They connect us to our past, to our fellow citizens, to our future, and to our ‘Trinbago’ home.” 


A tour guide at the National Museum explains that the simple exhibition—a collection of shells, some Cazabon paintings, the first Angostura puncheon, money display boards, and a small “interactive” installation of a 1940’s living room with two rocking chairs, a coffee table and a gramophone—is really designed to encourage visitors to go the museums the pieces came from. The pieces were chosen because the public could easily connect to objects like shells, money and the places painted by Cazabon in the 1800s, despite their uneasy juxtaposition. 


In countries like Barbados, International Museum Day activities included among its museum day tours and public talks, the launch of the National Cultural Foundation’s digital database comprising clips of Barbadian writer, critic and thinker George Lamming and various digital oral history projects covering the stories of Barbados. There was also an open day at the Cricket Legends of Barbados Museum during which various cricket legends signed photographs and memorabilia and there was a film screening of Fire in Bablyon, which shows the struggle of the young West Indies cricketers.



The digital connection 



At a time when museum curators around the world are considering how to make exhibits more vivid and interactive using everything from laptops to mobile phones, many international museums used this year’s IMD theme to highlight how they are making their collections more digitally connected. 


“Museums are becoming virtual,” says local historian Gerard Besson. Besson through his company, Paria Publishing, was instrumental in the creation of the Angostura Museum, the Museum at the Pitch Lake, La Brea, The Museum of the T&T Police Service and the Museum of the city of Port-of-Spain. 


Besson is a self-motivated historian whose own research, apart from spawning a number of book titles, has become a blog and a part virtual museum. “People have got in touch with me from all over the world,” he says, “in two years, the site has had over 280,000 visitors.” 


The power of digital technology to connect and interact with audiences has also been obvious for curator of the Virtual Museum of T&T, Angelo Bissessarsingh. “A physical museum is limited,” says Bissessarsingh, who explains that he was attracted to Facebook because of its “unlimited photo uploads and real-time social interaction.” Bissessarsingh took the decision to go virtual because he wanted to share his collection but didn’t want to donate it as he was “fearful of loss.” 


It has taken him five years to upload his private collections of rare books, documents, photographs, and postcards, and during this time he has made friends with a researcher based at the Ross Island station in Antartica and been contacted by one the last Lamonts, whose family once owned the Palmiste Sugar Estate in San Fernando, and who sent him prints of the family photo album from Scotland. “The Virtual Museum encompasses several thousand users,” says Bissessarsingh. 



The love connection 


Anna Walcott-Hardy, daughter of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott says that her family was also inspired to share their collection, which includes paintings by her grandfather Warwick Walcott, sketches by Derek Walcott and the work of local artists like Jackie Hinkson, Boscoe Holder and Cindy Arthur. 
“Our art is as good as anything else,” says Walcott-Hardy, “we are among the most creative people in the world.” Describing her childhood home as a place “with art, where everyone was painting,” Walcott-Hardy who studied art history, geography and literature at Boston University says that while she doesn’t consider herself widely travelled, her visits to museums in places like London, New York, Madrid and Barcelona have helped to reinforce her love of art. 


“But when I go into the Museum in Trinidad,” says Walcott-Hardy, “I get very upset and sad because I have been able to go to the Prado in Spain which I love and go to museums in a few countries…and I see how children can take their little sketch pad and sit on the floor and they’re surrounded by these great painters and I just find that our museum is a mixture of an ancient petroleum exhibit, some pieces that people donate that aren’t really curated…I mean I know things may have changed, I haven’t been in a while so I don’t want to bad talk something, but there’s not the respect that needs to be given for museums which really help us to learn about ourselves and have a lot of respect for ourselves.” 


This sentiment is shared by Medulla Gallery director and curator Geoffrey MacClean, who contends that heritage has never been respected in Trinidad. 
“Our museums I don’t think have ever been taken seriously,” says MacClean, “I mean like when four Cazabon paintings can be stolen …” MacClean who was once the only art student at Presentation College, San Fernando, muses on the pace of change as regards attitudes towards museums and art. 


“One of the things I realised (as a student) was that there was nothing on Trinidad art,” he says, “32 years later when my son was at Fatima doing art, I realised that there was still nothing, and this is when I decided look let me start the ball rolling.” He did the research and wrote three books on 19th-century Trinidadian painter Michel-Jean Cazabon who was the island’s first internationally renowned artist. 



A private connection 


Many of the new local museums are being instigated by private collectors like Besson, MacClean and Bissessarsingh, who have a personal passion for everything from fine art to cars. 
Another example is the Brij Maharaj Automative Museum and Heritage Collection, a showcase of vintage cars owned by San Fernando businessman Brij Maharaj, who has been collecting cars for over 40 years. His collection includes the country’s oldest working car, a 1917-18 Model T Ford. “Automative history is important to understanding a country,” says Bissessarsingh, who has partnered with Maharaj to increase awareness of the museum, “the museum raises awareness of an important part of history that will go overlooked. People have vintage heirlooms that they don’t appreciate.” 


Bissessarsingh explains that he saw one of these heirlooms in Penal, “a super car that set the paradigm for other cars” with its powerful V8 engine and handcrafted body and parts. “This was a car for royalty,” says Bissessarsingh of the Jensen car handcrafted in the UK, “… but the owner had cut off the back and the front and replaced them with Japanese parts and a Japanese engine. I was so mad I couldn’t say anything.” And there have been others he has discovered during his search like the 1950s Jaguar that sat under a mango tree and rotted, until it was only a shell. 


Bissessarsingh, who also recently wrote about the theft of the Cazabon paintings says, “ we lose things in stupid ways.” There was the photo album which showed the evolution of the bus service that was simply thrown away and according to Bissessarsingh, there is also escalated degradation of heritage sites. “Everyday a heritage building is broken down,” he says, “there is so little left.” “When you remember the struggles of your ancestors,” says Bissessarsingh, “it increases pride in your country and crime decreases. Every community should have a heritage centre.” 




Curators make the first connections 



Besson who describes “the historical record here in Trinidad” as “tenuous,” can testify to the lack of local awareness that can lead to loss. He speaks of staff at museums keeping their lunches in display cabinets, the discovery of the instruments played at Independence sealed behind a wall when doing the Police Service Museum, and how in part, the opportunity to do the Museum at the Pitch Lake emerged because after renovation of the original building, it was discovered that its original collection had again simply been thrown away. 
The broken pottery, shells and artifacts from the Pre-Colombian period once housed near the Pitch Lake, had been misjudged as rubbish. But says Besson, this was also one of the reasons that doing the Angostura Museum was so exciting.” 


It was very interesting to do,” says Besson, “they had kept a lot of their archival material and this brought knowledge to the fore…there was enough there to establish a legacy.” Besson did a number of exhibitions at the Angostura museum including Spirits of Trinidad, Spirits of Tradition and The Divine Child or Spirits of Christmas. The creativity that was possible from having enough material to draw from, says a lot about the importance of knowing what archival material to keep but also the importance of knowing how to interpret that material and make it relevant for audiences. 
“Museums are ten per cent display and 90 per cent storage,” says Besson, “and the idea is to mount exhibitions based on reasons.” “Historical narratives are written by the victors of history,” says Besson, but museums give the historical underdog the opportunity to “understand the true nature of the past” and realise that “the human condition is such that is a mix of good and mad.” 


Anna Walcott-Hardy also thinks that more robust curation could begin to alter how the public views their national museums and work to improve understanding of key societal issues. “The National History Museum in New York has real specimens to show evolution,” says Walcott-Hardy, “and this will help to end racism.” 
Making her own case for the use of new technologies, Walcott-Hardy says that she visited the museum with her daughter and they were able to do their own tour with an iPod. “We could that here,” she says plaintively. She also encourages that films and books be considered great receptacles of history. 


Walcott-Hardy who primarily preserves art, not only on the walls of her home, but in the publications she produces—UWI’s STAN magazine and in collectible books and calendars for corporate clients, for which she has won awards - is considering the pursuit of a Masters degree in Curation. “Curate our buildings,” she says, “…you could just keep a facade as an aspect of history. Clean out the museum and decide this is what you want to show. It needs to be well-curated, given a focus and standards.”


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