History this week No.16/2008
Stabroek News, April 24, 2008
Around the museums of Guyana
Lloyd F Kandasammy
Louis Lemieux defined the museum as “an institution that collects and preserves objects that will compose its collections, that studies these objects in order to establish their importance and significance as part of the society’s cultural heritage, and disseminates the knowledge thus acquired by means of various educational formulas.” There is no universal definition as to what is a museum. The definitions and concepts used will vary depending on the nature of ones interpretation. One of the most suitable definitions may well be that of the American Association of Museums.
According to this definition, a museum can be classified as “an organised and permanent nonprofit institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose, with professional staff, which owns and utilizes tangible objects, cares for them and exhibits them to the public on some regular schedule.”
In Guyana there are several museums each exhibiting distinctive exhibits interwoven with fascinating tales showcasing, despite financial constraints, skilled personnel and limited resources, the multicultural society we are so blessed with.
The National Museum of Guyana
The National Museum of Guyana, located on Company Path is the oldest in the country. The history of the museum dates back to 1844 when the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society was formally established. According to one report, one of the immediate objectives of the society was the establishment of a “museum and model room in which would be kept both indigenous and introduced minerals, soils, timbers, fruits, seeds, gums, resins, dyes and drugs, specimens of zoology, especially such as may tend to illustrate the ichthyology of the coasts and rivers and thus renders its fisheries of more importance, and models of such implements and machinery connected with agriculture and manufacture as the society may introduce…”
By 1853, the collection of the museum was reported to have been substantially augmented by the duplicates of exhibits, which were being prepared for the Paris exhibition of 1855 together with a presentation of a gift of minerals from England. This gift was presented to the society on behalf of one of their founder members Mr W H Campbell. As the collection slowly increased the colonial museum exhibits were said to have been “inadequately housed and hardly displayed at all in a small poky building behind the library (the present National Library) known as the laboratory.”
In 1861 definitive steps appeared to have been undertaken with the formation of a Natural History Society. In that year, it was proposed that a museum be constructed at Company Path. From all accounts it appears that the society did not proceed with the decision, for reasons unknown, to build the proposed museum. The plans of the society were abruptly halted when the entire collection and the structure housing the colonial museum were erased within minutes by the devastating fire on 3 April 1864. Progress was not as rapid as one may have envisioned as it was not until 1867 that any definitive plans were undertaken.
The construction of the structure designed by Mr Francis A Conyers, was soon undertaken and by October 1867 the Chairman of the RACS reported that a large portion of the frame was pulled into place. On 13 February 1868 after years of expectations the new museum described in one report as “a lofty, airy and well lighted annexe to the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society’s Library and Reading Room in North Street,” was thrown open to the public with the staging of a grand exhibition, which was described as the best Guyana had ever witnessed.
Throughout the years, the museum and its collection were continuously expanded but on 23 February 1945 the institution, its entire collection, archives and building were erased, ravaged by the thirsty orange flames of the most destructive fire ever experienced in Georgetown. After this fire, the society immediately began to rebuild from the ashes.
On 13 May 1948, after three years of lengthy discussions the plans for the rebuilding of the museum were formally adopted. In summary, it called for the construction of a building to house both the natural history and ethnographical collection. With the consent of the town council all land and buildings were to be exempt from municipal taxes.
On 28 July 1951, with great fanfare the present building after being dedicated by His Grace the Archbishop of the West Indies was declared open by the officer administering the government, Mr John Gutch before some 500 guests.
Today the museum represents an interesting collection of exhibits. It was originally intended to house natural history exhibits but it has since collected and displayed a wide range of exhibits. The first floor consists of an interesting collection of models of Guyana’s built heritage, which have since been erased thanks to the ravages of greedy flames, particularly the great fire of 1945. Equally interesting are the Rolls Royce once used by the late President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, the stamp press that manufactured the world’s most valuable stamp, the Black Magenta and several interesting Dutch and Scottish bottles, together with water prints of Lieutenant Thomas St Clair during his visit to British Guiana in 1808.
The second floor exhibits the natural history of Guyana with an exquisite collection of mounted specimens of reptiles, birds and mammals, together with specimens of the country’s geomorphology.
The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology
The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, located next to State House, the official residence of His Excellency the President of Guyana, was founded in 1974. The transformation of this historical structure, which once housed the Government Training College for teachers, was undertaken with great enthusiasm to showcase the lifestyles of the nation’s first peoples. It is the first museum of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean, a testimony to the vision and academia of Guyanese Archaeologist Dr Denis Williams.
In 1980, the ethnographic collections of Dr Walter Roth, Mr JJ Quelch and Sir Everard im Thurn were transferred to the Walter Roth Museum from the National Museum of Guyana. Two years later the museum was opened to the public. An ethnographic collection of the Wai Wai was presented to this museum in 1991 by Guyanese Cultural Anthropologist Dr George P Mentore. The museum’s collections also include excavated artifacts from all of the ten administrative regions of Guyana.
The Rupununi Weavers Society Museum
Complimenting the work of this museum is the Rupununi Weavers Society Museum at Lethem. This association is designed to promote and enhance awareness of Guyanese indigenous cultures. To this end, society maintains a museum within its compound on the outskirts of Lethem.
The museum houses Amerindian artefacts and antiquities, as well as archival materials and other intellectual resources.
The National Art Gallery, Castellani House
The National Art Gallery, Castellani House, designed by Cesar Castellani, an architect of the Public Works Department, this building (and the “New Amsterdam Public Hospital) are the only two surviving structures which were constructed by the Maltesian artist. His other noteworthy architectural masterpieces, the Alms House, were demolished and Our Lady of the Mount, Roman Catholic Church at Meadow Bank, East Bank Demerara was erased by fire.
Construction of this elegant three-storey timber edifice, the residence for the government Botanist, Mr George Jenman, commenced in 1879. However, it is recorded that he was displeased with the design of the house and refused to occupy it until the changes to his desire were implemented. In 1882 the building was completed and Jenman resided there. In later years, this building was designated as the official residence for the Directors of Agriculture such as John Birchmore Harrison and Gavin Kennard.
Architect Lennox Hernandez provides an interesting description of the original building, which had two floors only — ground and first — with high gable roofs pierced by gable dormer windows. The main body of the house had a centrally placed entrance on the west side, with galleries along the north and east sides at first floor level and an open porch below the northern gallery.
Over the years, the design of the original building has been altered with the addition of a third floor in 1942, which resulted in the raising of the roof and the enclosure of the open porch. In 1965, the structure was further transformed by Guyanese architect, Mr Hugh McGregor Reid.
For many years, this was the official residence of President Linden Forbes Samson Burnham. During this period it was known to all Guyanese as ‘the Residence’. Heads of States and members and officials of the royal family were noteworthy guests who gathered here on many occasions for dinners and social events hosted by President Burnham and the First Lady, Mrs Viola Burnham.
After his death in 1985, the building was left unoccupied for a short period. On 2 May 1993, after extensive repairs were undertaken by the government of Guyana, this structure was renamed Castellani House. It was here that the national art collection, which was founded in 1950, was housed after many years of repeated requests by Guyanese artists.
The late Dr Denis Williams remarked that the name Castellani House for this museum of fine art seems justified by historical fact. Whilst recognising this thread of continuity in the Guyanese heritage, it acknowledges the unique value of the artist as an articulate bridge between generations. Today this museum showcases valuable and interesting works of Guyanese artists including Philip Moore, Bernadette Persaud and Aubrey Williams just to name a few.
The Hadfield Foundation
Lovers of the visual arts may also want to visit the Hadfield Foundation, a privately owned art gallery, on Hadfield Street vividly displays a wide array of water colours, oil on canvas, and pen and ink drawings by some of Guyana’s and the Caribbean’s artists.
The John Campbell Police Museum
The John Campbell Police Museum, this small museum, which displays the history of the Guyana Police Force was founded in 1932. In 1948, it was relocated to the C1D headquarters and remained there for a number of years hidden from the eyes of the public. In 1975, the museum was given a fresh lease of life when John Campbell undertook the task of redesigning this institution. In 1993, this museum was reopened at its new location, the Felix Austin Police College on the 150th anniversary of the Guyana Police Force.
The museum has five main sections: History, Uniform, Musical Instruments, Photographs and Miscellaneous.
The National Military Museum
The National Military Museum, located at Camp Ayanganna established in 1985 is also worth visiting as it exhibits a fascinating array of materials linked with Guyana’s military heritage. Noteworthy examples include the selection of governor’s portraits, armaments inclusive of rifles, pistols, bayonets, revolvers, swords and cannons, medals and paraphernalia.
The Museum of African Heritage
The Museum of African Heritage, located in Barima Avenue was originally founded in 1985. It was initially called The Museum of African Art and Ethnology but was renamed the Museum of African Heritage, in 2001 in order to open its doors to a wider audience and begin to fully address the African experience in Guyana.
The existing collection includes items of African art, mostly West African, from the wooden mask to the carved door of secret societies, helping to educate people about the meaning and reasons behind African art traditions. Also in the collection are the brass weights used for measuring gold dust, drums, musical instruments, games and clothing. More recent donations include a wooden replica of the 1763 Monument.
The Linden Industrial Heritage Museum
The Linden Industrial Heritage Museum, one of the most recent additions to the cultural landscape of Guyana is located in the historic Mackenzie Recreation Hall, which was used in the past for concerts, dances, meetings and other social events. The museum displays the chronological history of Mackenzie, Wismar and Christianburg. Visitors should pay special attention to the carved wooden depiction of the bauxite mining process from pit to port. Other exhibits include a chronological history of bauxite mining in the area, a museum plaque, an artists impression of scenes around Linden, and one large mural of Linden from an incoming view atop Amelia’s Ward, showing the bauxite mining calcining Kilns #13 and #14 billowing smoke.
The Guyana Heritage Museum
The Guyana Heritage Museum located at Kastev, West Coast Demerara was opened in 1999. Its existence is due to the enthusiasm of Gary Serrao. The museum houses an interesting collection of exhibits representative of the nation’s history. Examples include irons, enamel lunch carriers, ice-shavers, countless bottles, cannon balls, jars, three-legged iron pots, 18th and 19th century maps, coins and stamps, other artifacts and an impressive collection of books by Guyanese authors awaken a sense of nostalgia.
The Dutch Heritage Museum
The Dutch Heritage Museum, located at the Court of Policy Hall, the oldest non-military structure erected in Guyana, at Fort Island in the Essequibo River, was designed and laid out by the author. Measuring forty feet in width and sixty feet in length, this brick building was completed according to the journal of Gravesande, the Dutch governor in 1752.
According to records, this structure was used for a variety of purposes. On Sundays, it was used as a place of worship and during the week, it performed the services of a Court House and Vendue Office.
The process to transforming this historical edifice into a museum involved the restoration of the structure, which was dilapidated owing to years of neglect. Additionally extensive research had to be undertaken to plot the layout and design of the museum. Visits were made to Fort Nassau, on the Berbice River to secure exhibits from one of the earliest Dutch settlements in Guyana.
Residents there enthusiastically donated a variety of items, inclusive of Delftware, crockery, bottles and jars, which they had unearthed at Nassau and its environs.
Equally enthusiastic were the residents of Fort Island, Mr Gary Serrao, of the Guyana Heritage Museum, Ms Indira Anandjit through her office of the Guyana Tourism Authority and members of the Dutch National Archives also donated a variety of items of a similar nature to ensure the success of this project.
The Demerara Rum Heritage Centre
The Demerara Rum Heritage Centre, located at DDL’s Complex at Diamond East Bank Demerara and showcases equipment used in the production of rum from the beginnings at Port Mourant Estate in 1732 to present, a display of the world famous Demerara rum.
Exhibits within the museum include the Coffey Still first built in 1832 and still being operated and maintained by DDL to produce its single barrel aged rums with the attractive aroma and flavour, which has won many international awards for years in succession.
Experts credit the aroma and fruity flavour of rums such as the 12-year-old and the 15-year-old Demerara El Dorado rums to the original wooden Coffey Still in which they are blended. The old wooden coffey, made of greenheart wood, continues to be used in the production process to this day. This is the last operating still of its kind in the world today, and rum connoisseurs attribute the uniqueness of the Demerara rums. In addition, the distillery makes use of a wooden pot still for the production of the very aromatic, flavourful, heavy rums that are widely sought the world over.
This still is again the last operating of its kind in the world, and the resultant rum, is so very distinctive that rum experts opined that it is the wood of the still that lends the flavours and congeners to the rums. Also exhibited is the Savalle Still, built around the same time, another important cultural and technological aspect in the history of rum production. Other exhibits include photographs of the processes used in batch and continuous rum production and other events of historical interest to the DDL.
The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, Red House
The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, Red House, was opened on 22 March, 2000 to commemorate the 82nd birth anniversary former President Dr Cheddi Jagan. Located in the heart of historic Georgetown this historic structure was the former residence of Dr Cheddi Jagan and Mrs Janet Jagan from 1961 to 1964. The centre houses a number of important documents and a photographic exhibition illustrating the President’s political career. On the second floor is the recreation of his office and an interesting exhibition of memorabilia, gifts and other objects presented to Dr Jagan.
In addition to these museums, there are other smaller establishments such as the Parson Munroe Museum of Village Life also known as the Sapodilla Learning Institute at Hopetown, WCB, which provides an interesting insight to the history of that area and its environs. Other small but nonetheless interesting displays showcasing other aspects of Guyana’s cultural landscape include the philatelic collection of the Guyana Post Office and the history of currency at the Bank of Guyana.
Annually these establishments host numerous exhibitions showcasing the history of this nation. Noteworthy examples include the annual exhibitions staged to commemorate Immigration, Emancipation and Independence, hosted through the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sport.
Of all these establishments, the National Art Gallery is the most active constantly showcasing the talents of Guyanese artists. Equally important are the educational programmes undertaken to sensitise the populace of various aspects of their history. It is here that the National Museum of Guyana, more than any other establishments of its kind, excels with its August school vacation activities.
The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology has also contributed greatly to the field of ethnography and anthropology with the publication of Anthropology and Archaeology, the hosting of guest lectures by Dr Mark Pleu. Sadly, the junior archaeology programme, once hosted by this establishment, seems to have fallen off the map. It is envisioned that the powers in charge will see it necessary to revitalise this important programme within the not too distant future, to encourage interest in the aforementioned fields of study.
There is still considerable work to be undertaken in the field of museums in Guyana as much of our heritage is carelessly discarded without thought in part due to the ignorance that prevails towards history within our society.
The preservation and transformation of the Berbice River Ferry as a museum dedicated to the history of the ferry service in Guyana, the transformation of the Railway Station as an Industrial Heritage Museum, the creation of a Museum to remind us of the Trade in Enslaved Africans, the creation of a visitor heritage and exhibition centre at Fort Nassau, Berbice River and the establishment of an Industrial Heritage Park at Mahaicony as part of the preservation plan for the historic railway bridges are several project proposals that have been presented by this author through the National Trust to the Ministry of Culture and various stakeholders.
It is envisioned that the powers in charge will someday see it necessary to embark upon these projects as vital to reminding the present and future generations of their rich and diverse cultural heritage, before they are sold as scrap iron or dumped the daily refuse collection bins.
On April 18-22, 2008 the importance and role of museums in today’s society will be discussed when members of the Commonwealth Association of Museums meet in Guyana. Our heritage will be on display on al for all to see as the value of museums will be highlighted by members of the commonwealth who will make presentations of their respective countries. Cultural heritage is often sidelined by many as unworthy of a substantial investment. Over the years, Guyana has lost valuable chapters of her history.
It is envisioned that the powers to be take every available opportunity to ensure that these institutions are properly financed rather than the shoestring budget under which they operate.