Are Museums a Thing of the Past?

It was a warm, bright morning. I climbed the two flights of steps crisscrossing the front of the building to the top floor of Liberty Hall (accessibility, anyone?) at 76 Upper King Street in downtown Kingston. Liberty Hall (the Legacy of Marcus Garvey) is a branch of the venerable Institute of Jamaica. As the former headquarters of Marcus Garvey, it aims to educate the public about our beloved National Hero. It hosts an annual lecture, book readings and cultural events of all kinds. It has a multi-media library and museum. Anyone who is interested in Jamaican history, culture and this remarkable life should visit.

I recall the opening in 2003 when King Street was blocked off. A grand ceremony took place, with a stage in the middle of the street. Then Minister of Education Burchell Whiteman presided. My boss at the time, the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, handed over a collection of CDs containing Garvey documents, funded through the U.S. State Department’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation – and I felt very proud. What I would now like to see is the much hoped-for pardon for Mr Garvey from the U.S. Government. But that is another matter.

In any event, it is years since I visited there. It is looking very well kept, with the rather sombre but appealing colours of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) much in evidence, and an attractive front garden with a large mango tree, a mosaic wall and seats. The security guard was very pleasant, the library assistant much less so.

Education and Outreach Officer at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, Eartha Cole speaks at the Institute of Jamaica Research Symposium. (My photo)

I was there for the Institute of Jamaica’s Annual Research Symposium, which was on the theme: The Role of Research and Exhibition Design in the Preservation of Culture. The Education Outreach Officer at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ), Eartha Cole, began her presentation by asking a pertinent question: Are museums still relevant? What makes some museums work well and thrive, while others fall by the wayside?

Funding – or rather the lack of it – is a major, inescapable factor. A vivid example of this was the presentation by the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ), who immediately cited “severe budget constraints.” In fact, the ACIJ has staged only seven new exhibits in a decade. Often, old exhibitions are remounted. Specifically, the ACIJ encountered major challenges with what sounded like a fascinating, but short-lived exhibition titled Guzzum Power: Obeah in Jamaica. Fascinating, but obviously controversial, since Obeah (a system of spiritual beliefs brought to Jamaica by African slaves) remains illegal under an old colonial law dated 1898).

Globally, the picture is a mixed one, also. Major museums and galleries in the United Kingdom have reported a fall in visitors of almost 1.5 million over the period from 2015 to 2016 – especially among younger visitors. This is tragic; I suspect the UK Government’s austerity policies may have much to do with it. Public libraries have been closing there for years, too. Ms Cole made us chuckle when she noted that China’s Lucheng Museum closed in 2014; a large number of the exhibits were found to be counterfeit. Well, a fake museum! I was sad to hear that the Jensen Arctic Museum (at Western Oregon University) and the Women’s Museum in Dallas (a Smithsonian affiliate) both closed due to a lack of funding.

In her presentation, Ms Cole explored customers’ responses after touring the NHMJ’s new (and not yet officially opened) Exhibition Gallery, a diorama of Jamaica’s landscapes and biodiversity. It’s a beauty, by the way. Here emerged an interesting discussion on the differing reactions (and expectations) of the younger generations to the new gallery. They wanted to touch the displays, take photographs and videos (which was not allowed). Seating and nearby refreshments were needed by others. On the other hand, the sounds, lighting and technology (touch multimedia screens) have been very popular, so far.

Eartha Cole (left) of the NHMJ and Keisa Weise of the ACIJ listen attentively at the Institute of Jamaica Research Symposium. (My photo)

Apart from money, I feel that it’s all a question of communication, with public education at its core. Museums must interpret, reach out, light a spark in the public’s minds. There is always so much material to work with, too.

For Jamaica and elsewhere, innovative ideas and creativity are also needed in bucketloads. But ideas are not enough. Marketing to various audiences, in their own language and using their preferred media, whatever that is, is critical these days. If you are trying to reach more young people, use social media. It is free! Find every opportunity, nook and cranny of the island to advertise it with flyers on noticeboards, etc. Build a meaningful database, spread the word and get some influencers to champion your museum, or a particular exhibit and the issues surrounding it. Interviews! Videos! Facebook posts! Twitter chats!

Fundraising events are critical – coffee mornings or cocktail evenings for specially invited guests. Reaching out to the diaspora – Jamaicans living overseas who treasure and love their history and legacy – and creating a “Friends of …” membership group would be a great idea. Many overseas-based Jamaicans, who remember school visits to the Institute of Jamaica, might love to contribute.

Continuous, carefully targeted outreach programmes are also important for the modern museum. The NHMJ is very active in this area, despite the slimmest of budgets (of course, with more funding it could always do more!) The children of Trench Town Reading Centre, for example, have been thrilled by several visits from NHMJ officers.

We felt somewhat intimidated by a huge stuffed Polar Bear on hind legs at the Fairbanks Museum in Vermont. (My photo)

I confess that I have a complete passion for museums. Wherever I am (especially in a new place) any local museum, large or small, is a magnet to me. In the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, we visited the marvellous Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, founded in 1889 by a local industrialist, Franklin Fairbanks. It’s a stunning Victorian building. Our jaws dropped as we stepped inside. It is crammed with natural history exhibits – a huge collection of stuffed birds and animals – and much more. Note that this Museum has “Donate and Become a Museum Member” in large letters at the top of every page on its website.

The only exception for me is the inaccurately-named British Museum – “the first national public museum in the world,” as it describes itself. It is packed with antiquities and artefacts that were literally stolen from a number of countries by the colonial powers. There is a vast array of Egyptian mummies and related artefacts. And the Elgin Marbles, a huge frieze of sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon – “acquired” by Lord Elgin in Athens in the early 19th century – are still there, despite long-running arguments.

There is much more to say about museums. As Ms Cole observed in her discussion of the NHMJ and the way forward, it’s true to say that globally, Natural History Museums have an urgent and important mission:

Natural History collections and the curators who study and name them are the crucial first steps in understanding and, ultimately, protecting biodiversity. With their vast collections and pioneering research programmes, Natural History Museums across the world are powerfully poised to engage audiences with the science they need to know and the decisions we need to make about our future.

Museums are not frozen in time. They should be living, breathing. But many need a helping hand. Visit your local museum today!

Get on TV! Here Exhibition Gallery Officer Theona Thomas (right) is interviewed on Television Jamaica’s popular “Smile Jamaica” show about the current exhibition celebrating 225 years since the arrival of the breadfruit in Jamaica (Do go see!)

Some snippets about the Natural History Museum of Jamaica: Founded in 1879, it is the only one of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. It houses a collection of over 130,000 plant species, over 110,000 zoological specimens and over 10,000 reference collections related to Jamaica’s flora and fauna. Housed in the collections are not just specimens from all over Jamaica, but also from elsewhere in the wider Caribbean. Find the NHMJ on Facebook, or to plan a visit or tour call them at 876 922-0620-6. Or take a trip downtown and visit the Institute of Jamaica at 10-16 East Street.


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