by André Skeete
Located adjacent to the Garrison Savannah is one of Barbados’ prominent historic landmarks and home to a large collection of this island’s rich cultural and natural heritage.
The Barbados Museum and Historical Society has been headquartered at St. Ann’s Garrison since 1933 and houses some 500,000 artefacts, which range from the prehistoric era to the 21st century.
A former British military prison constructed in the early to mid-1800s, the BMHS is, however, much more than a mausoleum to this country’s past, and a storage space for antiques and rare items.
It is testimony to “the story of Barbados”, that is, the tales of countless people and events which have shaped and continue to influence present-day Barbados.
Museum Director, Alissandra Cummins, in explaining the institution’s role as one of the ‘keepers’ of Barbadian history, said: “Our mission is to collect, interpret, conserve and educate on issues and things that relate to natural history, the history and culture of the island. This mandate is ongoing… History happens every day, every minute and so our responsibility is to continue to collect the historical experience of Barbadians on the island and also in the Diaspora.
“Our entire activity and our focus is ensuring that Barbadians have the opportunity to engage with their past and in turn, to help consolidate the future. Our purpose is to help new generations of Barbadians to better understand who they are by learning more about their past. By doing this, you help to shape national identity,” she remarked.
However, Cummins noted that while the organisation was very much interested in the past, they were also looking ahead, that is, exploring new ways of presenting history to present and future generations.
In this regard, she suggested that the introduction of technology has played a vital role in the exposition of history, an issue which has captured the attention of local museum officials.
“So, much of the information people garner now is coming from the Internet, so part of our interest is doing more digitisation and making sure that we develop more resources for the web. We are also looking at our computerised databases and making them more accessible, and in any exhibit development that we do, that we develop more interactivity. These will ensure there is more engagement of the experience beyond just reading and walking through… These are the types of things that people have come to expect because they are living in a different era,” Cummins pointed out.
Museums across the globe continue to suffer from dwindling numbers and in a world where the popular refrain is “Google it” or information can be found at the click of a mouse, increasing patronage has become even more difficult.
It is a challenge which the BMHS also has to face — how to remain relevant and maintain the interest of its audience.
“We have not had the resources to upgrade our core exhibits, which should be done every 10 years or so … and if this does not happen on a regular basis, then the local audience tapers off. What will attract their attention are special exhibitions, programmes and events, and those we have increased to ensure we are addressing the needs and interests of the local population,” the director explained.
The 80-year-old institution has worked to move its public education and awareness programmes well beyond the walls of its Garrison location.
One of the more popular activities for locals and visitors alike is the Ole Time Excursion Bus Tours which are held on weekends.
Cummins said the excursions, along with the new historical tours, were extremely popular.
“They sell out immediately and we would love to do more than one or two a month, but that requires resources. What we are focused on with regard to the tours is looking at the development of new circuits, so there would be opportunities to explore other aspects of the island. We have also been talking about developing specialised tours… We are still in the process of planning that but it will be very exciting,” the director hinted.
In addition, the BMHS hosts special hikes, an annual lecture series, a schools’ outreach programme, and various exhibitions throughout the year. One of the exhibits presently on display is “Whaling in Barbados”, which is open to the public. The facilities at the Museum have been expanded to include a larger air-conditioned gift shop, where locals and visitors may purchase memorabilia, books, photographs and artwork.
Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison being designated a World Heritage Site in June 2011 has also provided a unique opportunity for the Museum.
Heritage sites are immensely popular worldwide, as visitors are showing a heightened interest in the culture and heritage of their destinations.
The society has already started to realise some of the benefits of the inscription, particularly among locals who are curious to learn more about the rich and vibrant history of the Garrison area and the City of Bridgetown.
“That has led to a great deal more public interest in what the Museum is about and what
its mandate is. Any of the programmes we put on in relation to the Garrison or Historic Bridgetown, I think attract large audiences of Barbadians who are curious, which is very gratifying,” Cummins said.
This has meant that the Museum’s staff has had to “up the ante” in terms of the information it provides to the public.
“There is a heightened awareness among Museum staff. We have a greater role to play in continuous research and making this information available on an ongoing basis. We are looking at developing special databases and facilities so that information can be more broadly accessible and people can also come and do their own research,” the Director said.
Cummins also stressed that her institution would not rest on its laurels, but would continue to reach out and educate locals, as well as those with Barbadian links in the Diaspora.
In an effort to develop such links, the Museum has sought to build strategic partnerships. She disclosed that the BMHS was in the initial stages of negotiations which could see a partnership with some of the major international museums and galleries.
“Over the next couple of months, some of the major art institutions in Britain will be coming to see us to develop a significant exhibition in 2015. We are also extending our enquiries to other institutions in the UK, US and Canada because we need to start developing activities that reach out to the Diaspora in those countries, as we seek to put in place exhibits and programmes relating to the 20th anniversary of the Barbados Programme of Action for (Small Island Developing States) SIDS, as well as the 50th anniversary of Barbados’ Independence in 2016.
“We initiated discussions with the Smithsonian because they are in the process of developing a new national museum of African American history and culture. They have come to realise that part of the experience of African Americans in the United States is the story of Barbadians and other Caribbean
people, going and making new lives in the US, both historically and in the modern era,” Cummins pointed out.
As more Barbadians take an interest in their history and culture, and with Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison’s designation as a World Heritage Site, the Museum’s role in educating the population will become even more significant.
With a wealth of information available on site, including its galleries and library, and a number of exciting programmes for patrons, there is always something to see and learn from a visit to St. Ann’s Garrison.
So, the next time you have a free weekend, try taking a trip to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. You just may discover something new.