‘Cross-cultural understanding is critical.’ First Caribbean heritage museum in U.S. opens

A report by C. Isaiah Smalls II for The Miami Herald.

For decades, South Florida’s Caribbean communities didn’t have a place to celebrate their diverse cultural heritage.

Of course there were individual institutions like The Haitian-American Heritage Museum in the Design District, The American Museum of The Cuban Diaspora in Coral Way and The Bethel House Bahamian-American Museum in West Perrine. But nothing honored the Caribbean community as whole — until now.

South Florida nonprofit Island SPACE welcomed visitors early this week to a preview of the first Caribbean-American heritage museum in the United States. Located inside Westfield Broward Mall in Plantation and set to launch Thursday, the space showcases the diversity of the Caribbean community. Artifacts come from most of the more than 20 countries that make up the region.

“There’s so many museums celebrating so many other people, culture, heritage, art, science — so many different things but nothing celebrating us,” said an emotional David I. Muir, the Island SPACE Caribbean Museum co-founder and president. “This is a huge, huge thing to do for our community.”

Muir’s sentiment was echoed by other attendees.

“It’s important that we showcase the diversity of our county,” Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, the first Jamaican-American to hold the post, told a small audience. “The Caribbean community has a strong role to play in that diversity.”

To Holness’ point, nearly half of Broward’s foreign-born population — about 290,000 people — comes from the Caribbean, according to the latest Census data. A little more than 877,000 people, or about 32-percent of Miami-Dade County’s total population, have roots in the tropical region.

Though hampered by a limited space, the museum makes great use of its close quarters. A converted restaurant, the exhibition space takes up about 3,250 square feet where glass display cases display a wide range of cultural artifacts, including a Carnival costume to cooking utensils.The sounds of reggae and merengue evoke memories of trekking through the heartland of Jamaica or mastering the dance steps at a Dominican club.

For Marlon Hill, who immigrated to South Miami Heights from Jamaica in 1985, the educational opportunities was the most intriguing aspect.

“It’s important for our kids to understand the stories and the layers of who we are as Caribbean people, [the majority of whom are] of African descent but also other experiences as well, and how that story fits into the American landscape,” said Hill, the former president of The Caribbean Bar Association.

The museum honors Caribbean history across ethnicities. Cuban votive candles sit in glass cases next to ceremonial shaker from the Jamaican Taino people. A bailna, or rolling pin, from Trinidad and Tobago lies beside afeitadora de hielo, or an ice shaver, from the Latin Caribbean. Explanations of Latin and Calypso music share a canvas.

Mixing heirlooms from different traditions promotes a sense of community, said museum co-founder Calibe Thompson.

“The nation is so divided and, in my experience, the more you learn about other people, the easier it is for you to find common ground with them,” said Thompson, who also serves as executive director.

Added Lauderhill Commissioner Melissa Dunn: “Cross-cultural understanding is critical in order for us to create not only the type of Broward County but the type of United States where understanding, peace and love is the norm.”

The museum takes visitors through the history of the region beginning with the indigenous Taino people. It explores the impacts of colonization and slavery on the Caribbean before diving into the region’s contributions to sports, music and even South Florida politics.

“We’ve come through the decimation of our indigenous people, we’ve come through colonialism, we’ve come through slavery to emancipation to all the different parts of what has developed our culture,” Muir said. “ It’s a fighting spirit. It’s a spirit of excellence.”

IF YOU GO:

Island SPACE Caribbean Museum, 8000 Broward Boulevard #422, Plantation; 417-812-5663, islandspacefl.org.

Open: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday for the rest of 2020. Hours of operation will change in January 2021. Admission is free.

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