Tourists in Kingston are a different breed from the kind you see on the north coast. They are not quite as horribly sunburnt, are less skimpily attired and tend to exhibit more variety in their clothing, demeanor and indeed their place of origin. As we waited for our guide at the Bob Marley Museum to pick us up, we sipped on a (tourist-priced) Ting. I looked around curiously. There was a trio of young women from Toronto, who spent a lot of time giggling over Marley’s bedroom and speculating in whispers on how “hot” he was in that particular room. There was an amiable Australian, and a German-speaking couple who appeared to be having a continuous row, snapping fiercely at each other throughout the tour. The woman ended up stone-faced on the front doorstep. There were a couple of young Jamaicans speaking strong patois, but they might have been foreigners too. And then there was us – grandson Marley and his parents, on one of their first excursions in Jamaica.
For me, it was a very mixed experience; but weighing things up, the scales tipped – slightly – towards the positive. Perhaps I was trying to look at the place with a rather too critical eye, and it was actually better than I expected. The Museum is just a few minutes’ walk from our house, but it was the first time I had ever been in there; when you have visitors from abroad you tend to do some of the “touristy” things and you get, somehow, a different perspective on Jamaica. I have always been a Marley fan, but I just hate tourist traps.
When visiting the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road, before one is even welcomed one is made aware of the strict rules regarding photographs and video. The only spot where one can safely take said photos or video is the statue of Bob in front of the house. We were told to leave our cameras and filming/taping equipment at the ticket booth. They would probably have liked to confiscate our cell phones too. We were “welcome to take photographs on the grounds of the museum and at the statue.” Hmm.
Never mind. Our bright young guide collected us and took us to the house.Yes, the Museum is basically a house; the nice, old-fashioned uptown home where Marley moved when he started to make more money from his music. There now seemed to be too many of us for such a small place, and at times we could not hear the guide because we were all squashed into narrow spaces, breathing down each other’s necks. The guide was charming and amusing and assumed we were all die-hard, devoted Marley fans (I guess most of us were). In a room filled with gold and platinum discs, she ambushed us all with an order to sing “One Love,” causing some embarrassment. The Germanic couple did not sing, but most of us gamely complied.
As we toured the house, some rather haunting old family photographs on the walls called out to me. The recording studio with its dusty old buttons and switches had a strange, stuffy intimacy, and an almost ghostly atmosphere. I could easily imagine Bob hovering over a microphone, getting ready to sing. I also found his little kitchen intriguing, apparently with his original culinary implements – an ancient-looking food mixer, for example. However, frankly much of the narrative of Bob’s everyday life as presented to us was what I would call “sanitized.” The guide did not mention Bob’s numerous babymothers, for example, nor his less than comfortable relationship with politicians and other public figures. His non-stop ganja smoking was hardly mentioned, either. None of his more militant music was played while we were waiting – just the sing-along stuff. None of our “icons” are perfect. A less “glamorous” account would have perhaps been more interesting.
Did you know that Bob ran up the narrow staircase three steps at a time, to keep fit? (I bet you didn’t). Although encouraged to, none of our group were inclined to try. Did you know he loved to play football out in the yard? (Yes, of course we all know that). Did you know he loved to rest in a hammock on the upstairs verandah in the evening? (No, but so what, really? And was this the original hammock – it looked very new?) The tour was packed with little details of Bob’s life (again, kudos to the highly knowledgeable guide) but some of the details were less fascinating than others.
I did enjoy the photographs – and newspaper clippings from all over the world, that were plastered over the walls of one room. I could have spent hours reading those. We left the house and walked round the back to a kind of exhibition hall with some remarkable black and white photographs of the highest quality. After sitting in the small (and very cool) film room for a few minutes to watch some documentary footage, we decided to leave.
Oh, I forgot “Three Little Birds” and the “Shot Room.” Some of the lyrics of my least favorite Marley song (sorry – I find it annoying!) are painted on the back wall of the house (I am not sure why) and once again, our intrepid little group was required to sing the song. I took out my phone to take a photograph of the warbling tourists. Immediately, a woman popped out from behind a bush and yelled, “Excuse me! No video filming!” in a pseudo-American accent. My colleagues and I were startled. It certainly struck a sour note in the middle of our rendition of the happy little Marley song. “I was just taking a photograph,” I said, rather haughtily. (Don’t make tourists feel guilty and bad, people. I could have been a guidebook writer).
As for the “Shot Room” – I am afraid we skipped that. The space at the back of the house was narrow and crowded. I really think they made a bit too much out of a rather minor incident that took place there on December 3, 1976 – to the point of sensationalizing it. Some may disagree that the very slight wound that Marley received in that room after someone fired at him is minor, as the repercussions were greater than the injury itself.
For a local like me, the Museum was well worth J$500. I thought US$20 was really steep for overseas visitors, though. Also, the guides dropped a heavy hint that we were supposed to “tip” them before we left. In a sense though, the guides were almost the best part of the visit. Almost all the reviews on TripAdvisor are highly positive, apart from a few who confessed to not being Marley devotees. Many reviewers comment on the high admission price for such a small place, comparing it unfavorably to the entrance fees for huge tourist attractions like Angkhor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site (the same price for a whole day).
I felt a little let down at the end. The gift shop was not up to par. You can get that kind of stuff almost anywhere in the world. If you visit a museum, you are really looking for something unique to the place – something you can’t find anywhere else. Even some great picture postcards of the Museum interior would have been nice. There are plenty of creative possibilities for really good, interesting stuff – replicas of Bob’s sandals and his Bible in the bedroom, for example. People (especially fans) love this kind of stuff. This was just the usual touristy red, gold and green junk at inflated prices. Do better.
Please also do better for visitors with disabilities. I did not notice any accommodation made for them. It would probably be difficult in the house, with its narrow spaces. I am not sure if it is even possible, but one could try.
Like all tourist attractions, there is a strong sense that everyone is trying to make a quick buck out of you. Perhaps that’s why I always feel uncomfortable in this kind of situation. If one’s on holiday, one doesn’t usually mind too much because one is feeling relaxed and jolly. But the Bob Marley Museum is verging on the money-grabbing. And please, reduce the entrance fee.
But there were two wonderful finds of an artistic nature. It was a very pleasant surprise to find a large mural by Brother Everald Brown – a Jamaican intuitive artist from St. Ann who passed away some years ago now – on a wall behind the house. Inside the house, there was also the large stained glass version (by Robert Long, of Cocoa Beach, Florida) of the cover for Marley’s 1983 album “Confrontation,” designed by Neville Garrick. Lovely.
I wondered what Bob would have thought of all this. Maybe he would have just shrugged, and sang:
You’re in Jamaica: C’mon and smile!