Henry S. Fraser: The many magical museums of Barbados

St-Nicholas-Abbey

St. Nicholas Abbey is one of four house museums in Barbados (Credit: stnicholasabbey.com)

Henry S. Fraser

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sunday July 6, 2014 – Museum: From the Latin, and the Ancient Greek (Mouseion), which denotes a temple dedicated to the Muses (the patron divinities in Greek mythology of the arts), and hence a building set apart for study and the arts. Pausanias described a small hill in Classical Athens opposite the Akropolis called Mouseion after Mousaious, a man who used to sing on the hill, died there of old age and was buried there. (Wikipedia)

The latest issue of the electronic Global Travel Industry News, eTN Global News (July 3rd), makes a point of enormous relevance to our own tourism product in Barbados, as well as to our own cultural development and self-image. It comes in an eloquent article by Dr. Peter Tarlow, world renowned tourism expert, speaker and writer: “Museums become the tourism industry’s new star”. Wow – listen up, folks!

Dr. Tarlow’s main point is worth quoting in full: “For all too many years, museums were places that people stated they ought to visit, but often ignored, on their way to something they thought would be more fun. That trend may be now reversing itself and as an in-depth analysis found in the British magazine, The Economist (December 21) notes, museums today are attracting people in numbers that were unheard of even a few years ago. Museums have become more than merely one more choice in a world of travel and leisure choices; they have become major attractions”.

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Dr. Tarlow goes on to point out that Art Museums, such as the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York, top the list in popularity, and that sometimes the very architecture is a big attraction, as with the the Guggenheim, which I rate well up in the top ten of 20th century architectural gems. But his article emphasises the importance of museums identifying their target audience. In our case it should be both visitors and ourselves.

The point is made that museums are one more form of education, but are also much more than education. Dr. Tarlow goes on: “Successful museums must learn how to appeal not only to the mind but also to the heart and to the emotions (my emphasis). Exhibits need to demonstrate not only past glories but also how the glories speak to every age and provide a universal message. Even a national museum can present its nation’s story in a way that touches people from around the world. Some of the most successful museums are those that exhibit what is commonly called ‘Dark Tourism’, or demonstrate how a particular tragedy has a universal significance.” Indeed that is one of the secrets of the enormous universal attraction of Prison Museums which are hugely popular everywhere, and why the proposal for Glendairy Prison has so much potential.

Barbados is in a wonderful position to capitalise on this new trend, but some of our many museums are virtually well kept secrets! We have no less than four House Museums and a dozen other museums, catering to every possible passion, interest or curiosity, of locals and visitors, children and adults. But how many are in the public eye, or promoted by our tourism agencies?

We have four House Museums – St. Nicholas Abbey, Sunbury House, George Washington House, and Tyrol Cot, with its Heritage Village. And George Washington House actually features three mini museums within it, and the exciting, soon-to-be-opened Garrison Tunnels.

We have a baker’s dozen other museums of every kind – going from South clockwise: The Concorde Museum – a splendid experience, the Mallalieu Classic Car Museum at Pavilion Court in Hastings, the Olympic Museum at Wildey, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, the National Armoury under St. Ann’s Fort with its unique cannon collection and mock Mermaid Tavern, the Museum of Parliament in the West Wing, Cricket Legends at Fontabelle, the Nidhe Israel Museum at the Synagogue, the Folkstone Museum in Holetown, the Arlington House Museum, the Springvale Folk Museum in St. Andrew, the much-in-need Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum and the Sea Island Cotton Museum and Shop. Perhaps Gun Hill Signal Station and the Mount Gay Visitors Centre should be included.

This is a truly rich collection by any standards. The displays in the Museum of Parliament, Cricket Legends and the Nidhe Israel are magnificent, interesting and emotionally stirring. Arlington House and Nidhe Israel receive great praise because of the fascination of the content and the interactive nature which appeals to everyone, especially children. And the comprehensive nature of the four House Museums provides something for everyone.

But I suspect many people – sun-seeking visitors and Bajans alike – still think of museums as boring displays of artefacts and historical dates (and most people hated history BECAUSE of the dates), rather than the exciting stories of people of the past. Where does Stede Bonnet, notorious “gentleman pirate” of Barbados and partner of the murderous Blackbeard, appear in our own museum? Much is made of him in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was captured and hung. Where is the story of Caroline Lee of yellow sweet potato fame, and elegant proprietor of a hotel at Number 1, Broad Street? And where is the story of the Reverend Griffith Hughes, Rector of St. Lucy, author of the greatest book ever to come out of Barbados – The Natural History of Barbados (1750); or of the Reverend Norton Beresford Watson, his successor, whose extraordinary collection founded the Barbados Museum?

Museums need to be tied to stories of people and people with stories, and their success depends on their communities and, literally, their lovers. The Barbados Museum is increasingly reaching out to the community with activities, and Cricket Legends and others must do the same. I would like to see a really good, interactive sugar museum; the National Art Gallery will hopefully soon become a reality in the vacated Block A at the Garrison; and the National Trust is developing a proposal for a Prison Museum at Glendairy as part of a multi-purpose entertainment centre – an idea with enormous potential. Museums are “going viral!”

henry-fraser-150Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website:  profhenryfraser.com