A report by Suzanne Francis Brown for Jamaica’s Gleaner.
Groups of students from every faculty of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona have been coming into the UWI Museum during late January and early February, seeking artefacts they can interpret in the context of themes studied in a course called Caribbean Civilisation.
A few students ask where they can find displays that speak to regionalism or some other theme they have been asked to explicate, but most get enthusiastic about exploring the small museum for answers to the puzzles set by lecturers. There is a lot in the museum they see as unusual, and with which they can fulfil one pleasurable part of their course assignment: a photo with the object they have identified as relevant.
These activities demonstrate the museum’s fulfilment of important aspects of its purpose: engagement with various communities, interpretation of artefacts, and provision of research information that can help to generate connections between the past, the present and, through the present, the future. What could be more relevant to the process of teaching and learning?
And what, in a sense, could be more appropriate to the area of study referred to as the humanities, which Stanford University broadly defines as those ways in which people “process and document the human experience”?
While most people narrowly define humanities within the bounds of academic disciplines such as art and music, language, literature, history, and philosophy, there are some who recognise the cross-disciplinary connections to every other field. Appropriately, museum studies as a discipline generally falls within the humanities, but the subject areas for museums extend to every discipline.
‘Museum’ was originally a Greek word meaning a place dedicated to the Muses (goddesses of the arts and sciences), hence, a place set aside for study and reason.
The modern museum grew out of cabinets of curiosities collections of oddities gathered by mainly European travellers and displayed back home, at first for select audiences and later for wider consumption. Sir Hans Sloane’s Jamaican collection, for instance, is at the core of the British Museum. The idea of what a museum can be or do has expanded.
PLACES OF INTERACTION
Today, museums are considered less as temples to the past and more as places of interaction; sometimes a classroom – increasingly a thought-provoking entertainment space. This focus on engagement becomes even more important where history is the museum’s reason for being.
The UWI Museum started in 2012 as a project at the university’s Regional Headquarters, with the stated mandate to focus on and reflect the university’s history and development and its relationship to the region it was established to serve 70 years ago. The museum, therefore, sets out to provide artefacts of the university and the region with context, purpose, and a sense of value.
These artefacts help to ground the institution historically. They may be relevant to research and to extension of intellectual discourse via exhibition; they also serve community engagement and memory.
Early crockery used in halls of residence of the University College of the West Indies (UWI), now on display in the UWI Museum, often elicit warm recollections of hall life from alumni of that period and consistently generate comment from contemporary students, many of whom yearn for a closer connection than today’s traditions offer. ‘Origins’, a semi-permanent exhibition on the university, is constantly updated with new artefacts and research, enlivening the institution’s history and shedding light on its multifaceted contributions to regional culture and development.
The museum also offers inputs on themes relevant to the Jamaican and regional experience, and specialist knowledge on aspects of the history of the Mona site, where the university started in 1948.
This site a square mile on a 999-year lease to the university is itself, potentially, a living museum, enabling access to centuries of the Jamaican and Caribbean past through the many layers of history that survive within its space and for which it retains responsibility. The term ‘palimpsest’ is used for a surface, in this case, a landscape, within which remnants of the past still protrude into the present.
At Mona, there are material and other evidential remains from the period of plantation slavery through post-emancipation and indentureship, with the core of two sugar estates on the campus site along with structures relevant to the early development of the city’s water system, the World War 2 period, and the development of the regional university, the UCWI/UWI.
The notion of the campus site as a heritage park has been mooted, but not pursued in a holistic way, although heritage signage, including monuments to major populations confirmed as living on the site, have been installed in the past decade.
Additionally, significant historical and archaeological research relating to the campus site includes a book on the site (Mona Past & Present: The History and Heritage of the Mona Campus, University of the West Indies) and joint archaeological survey work by the UWI’s Department of History and Archaeology with the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery.
Without a context of value, old things are simply that – old things. Searches for some documented items relevant to the early UWI have ended in recognition that they were discarded because they were not valued as symbols of the institution’s origins.
These were things that sat long in a cupboard and were finally spring-cleaned, things that sat long in stores and were finally put on garage sale, things that hung long in closets and became food for moths, or things that were updated or upgraded until no one any longer knew where they were.
Archives and libraries, media repositories, as well as curation facilities for archaeological and other historic material culture, have a role that also supports the work of museums in collecting and interpreting artefacts of every sort.
But the context for success also includes policymakers, legislators, owners and operators, promoters, educators, conservators, interpreters, critics, and, crucially, visitors. Opportunities abound, not least within the multilayered historical sites and stories of the UWI.