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Shameful! Art historian raps absence of national museum

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE, Observer staff reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, October 23, 2012    

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THAT Jamaica does not have a national museum is shameful. So says Director of the Museum of History and Ethnography at the Institute of Jamaica Dr Jonathan Greenland.

“Places like Cayman Islands, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, St Kitts and Nevis, and Afghanistan have national museums. Jamaica, on the other hand, while in possession of wonderful material, great history and an audience all around that is desperate for its cultural and heritage information, does not. This is very shameful,” he told the Jamaica Observer last week.

Greenland, who holds a PhD in art history and is a former executive director of the National Gallery, underscored the importance of a national museum to the country’s culture and heritage.

“It is very important for nation building,” he explained. “We have developed all these national heroes and stuff like that. And so we need a national museum where people can focus their education building so that they can represent themselves and the culture of the nation,” he said. “So we have all these objects that go way back, but there is nowhere to display them. They are sitting in a basement somewhere in our building and we need somewhere to have them on display so people can come in and understand the whole history, their own path and where their people came from — whether they be African, or Indian, or Chinese, or English, or whatever, they have to understand the development of their history. So it (national museum) is very important for us.”

As such, he said the Government is currently pushing to establish such a facility, and he expected that it will be realised within a year. Contrary to popular opinion, said Greenland, the venture does not have to be expensive and could cost in the region of $20 million.

“Our priority at the moment is developing a proper national museum for the people of Jamaica, which we don’t have,” Greenland said. “This is a matter of importance.

“We want to ensure that the country at last has a national museum. They have been talking about it for years and years and years but it has never actually happened. But I think in the past what happened is that some people wanted to raise an enormous amount of money in order to build a huge museum as large as King’s House or Hope Gardens, but the bigger your plans, the less likely it is to happen.

“So what we are planning is to use space that we can get already, then making that into a museum, so we won’t have to go through the process of building a huge structure. One day we might have the money to build a huge structure but for now we can just construct something that will be done quickly and require a modest amount of money,” he pointed out.

The ideal location for the museum, Dr Greenland said, would be downtown Kingston, given the historic nature of the capital city. He said a number of places were being considered, but declined giving details.

“There are all sorts of buildings downtown. We are looking downtown because it is a flourishing community, a historic community but is also the most energetic part of Jamaica. It would definitely be a great location, and with Digicel and people like that going down there it is becoming much more of a location that people would visit from all parts of Jamaica.”

“[It would be] somewhere people could go where they could park easily, where big buses could pull up and they could get out and go, where they could get some refreshments, where they could buy something in the shop, and they could hang around outside and relax. Somewhere with a playground and stuff like that,” he said. “And then there is exciting programmes inside, wonderful exhibitions and people get to see all the objects from Port Royal, or they see the objects from the Spanish eras, and they see the Taino museum, I don’t think we would have a problem bringing people in.”

“We have about 1.8 million people living in Portmore and Kingston and we would like to be able to work with those people as our primary audience,” he said.

The art historian added that in the new dispensation, the Taino Museum in White Marl, St Catherine — which was forced to close its doors five years ago as a result of ongoing violence — in the surrounding communities, would be incorporated into the national museum.

When I invest energy and money into things I want it to work, I don’t want it to be something that doesn’t work and if there was a Taino museum as a part of the national museum, that would be a much better investment of our time and money [than investing in relocating the museum from White Marl],” he said.

“We have to be very strategic about how we allocate funds and energy and staff, and so our number one priority and Minister Hanna’s number one priority is the national museum,” Dr Greenland added.

He said another priority was to open “a museum on the north coast which is able to attract large numbers of people.

“So we have two very important agenda; everything else is secondary to them. One is the national museum in Kingston and the other is the museum on the North Coast.”

Recently, the IOJ launched the Friends of the Museums and Our Story Foundation — two initiatives aimed at raising funds for a national museum and improving the institute's existing museums.

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