A Cultural Loss

By in News on December 3, 2011

This has been a year marked by powerful fires that ravaged historic businesses, communities, and now, culture. The fire that broke out early yesterday (December 2) morning in downtown Nassau took the shell of the straw market already destroyed by Hurricane Irene earlier this year, as well as the two historical buildings that straddled it—the Pompey Museum and the historic St. Cuthbert’s Church.

While a new straw market venue downtown is set to open imminently, the damage to these two buildings which have stood for centuries in the heart of Nassau are a blow to Bahamian history and culture.

Dr. Gail Saunders, who established the Pompey Museum in 1992, mourned the loss of her project yesterday as she worked with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation and government officials to decide how to approach it’s restoration.

“I think people are generally just sort of stunned,” she says. “When they called me early this morning, I just was so confused. Most people I think were very concerned and very upset about it.”

“I feel that Bahamians have to demand that the heritage and culture be preserved and however much it costs within reason, but we have to restore the museum and the building too which is very historic.”

Indeed the museum is the historic Vendue House, a one-story building dating back to the 1760s as a market for various commodities—most notably for slaves trafficked across the Atlantic. Though the building has since gone through many lives as a department for telegraph and telephone and electricity, it’s historical significance was honored in 1992 when Dr. Saunders worked to establish it as a public museum, named after the slave who led the revolt against inhumane conditions on the Rolle Plantation in Exuma, to celebrate Bahamian heritage and culture.

“It really is representative of the whole story of slavery in The Bahamas that’s known internationally as well,” says Dr. Saunders. “It was established also to educate students and people of The Bahamas about their past.”

“If you travel anywhere in the world and in the Caribbean especially, museums are very important attractions and this was in such a strategic location because it was downtown. It’s very important from the point of education and tourism.”

Indeed, besides a permanent collection of an in-depth look into the slave trade and experience of slaves on plantations and post-emancipation through significant artifacts, the Bahamian intuitive painter Amos Ferguson exhibited his paintings in the space. It has also displayed a series of temporary exhibitions such as “A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie” and the UNESCO/ Schomburg commemorative exhibition “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery”.

Though a few items could be salvaged and some books on the second story survived, an enormous amount of history, research and artwork was lost to the fire. Up until press time, it was unclear as to whether many paintings by Amos Ferguson went along with the artifacts, but if this is the case, then certainly we have experienced a deep and terrible loss of work from a beloved Bahamian founding father of visual art.

The government has committed to restoring the building and replicating its artifacts, yet just over a decade ago in September 2001, the Pompey Museum caught fire and closed for a few years for restoration. So this latest loss is particularly bewildering and unfathomable—why were proper protective procedures not put into place to ensure a tragedy like this could have been avoided? How can we now move forward and learn how to properly value, preserve and protect Bahamian art and history for future generations to understand and appreciate where they came from?

“This is a setback for us but we’re determined that the building will be restored,” says Dr. Saunders. “We will be able to get replicas of some of the slave artifacts that were in the museum. But it’s going to be expensive and it’s going to take time. We will have to be patient.”

What’s particularly sobering about online remarks expressing awe at the fire damage are those who are mourning the loss of the nightclub “Da Balcony”. Such expressions are in themselves testaments to how little Bahamians know or have been taught to value their rich heritage, for within the history of that building, Da Balcony is simply a brief moment in time.

A testament to its rich history was embodied in the elaborate mural by local artist Kishan Munroe last year, called “Lift Up Your Head”. As part of the Love My Bahamas campaign, sponsored by Coca-Cola and the Downtown Nassau Partnership, which established murals by local artists for the revitalization of Downtown Nassau, Munroe selected the building because of its history.

“This was the building I saw first that had significance—everything else they had on the list didn’t hold significance, they were just buildings and walls,” he says.

Wanting to tap into that significance and inspired by such murals he saw on his travels to Latin America that honored history and heritage, Munroe set out to uncover its history with the help of Dr. Saunders and Penelope Nottage and then to share it with its millions of tourist and Bahamian passersby.

Orignally known as St. Cuthbert’s Church or the Seaman’s Chapel, the building, which dates back to the 1800s, was a mission church for sponge fisherman, which Munroe paid tribute to in the painted fisherman figures and ship sails. He also included the element of spirituality with a slave in prayer, as well as a figure in Junkanoo costume to tap into our African history and heritage. As an artist Munroe’s work taps into human experience and connection, and this piece is no different with historical and contemporary figures sweeping upwards to the sky finding the common human element in us all.

Indeed, Munroe wanted to piece to be inspirational, as in the summer of 2010 the crime rate was rapidly on the rise.

“I wanted it to be uplifting, to tap into that futuristic stylized tendencies used in the world wars to inspire us to survive and move forward,” he says. “I wanted to show that history isn’t dead but it in motion.”

Despite the mural’s size and presence, Munroe, knowing the building’s rich history, respected its structure and worked only on the flat surface to not drastically change the appearance of the building but rather give meaning to the phrase “If these walls could talk.”

Indeed, his mural, despite its brief presence, garnered attention from both tourists and locals alike, educating people about their environment and history they may often—and still do—take for granted. For Munroe, the loss of his work and that building by fire is indeed shocking, but his outlook is positive that it has served its purpose.

“Painting has a life. You give life to a painting—that’s basically birth. Anything you give life to dies. So it’s not the quantity of life, it’s the quality of life,” he points out.

“So if you create something that lasts for just one hour and it does what it’s supposed to do, then it was a good life. If it exists for a hundred years and still does not achieve its purpose then it was done in vain. But I can honestly say right now I don’t think it was done in vain.”

Indeed, losing both buildings to fire at the same time is a strong statement to the ephemerality of human artifacts, and if we don’t realize right now that these items are worth saving for what they represent, then we will never have a proper foundation to our Bahamian identity or a sense of national pride.

Ed Fields, the Director of the Downtown Nassau Partnership, which works to recognize and preserve the valuable Bahamian buildings in historic Nassau, hopes that this time around proper consideration can be put into protecting the restored buildings.

He echoes the bewilderment, grief and sadness many feel today as we pick up what pieces we can and come to terms with what we cannot recover ever again.

“Buildings such as these go to the very heart of who we are as a people,” he says. “They represent where we come from, and the struggles endured to get where we are today as Bahamians.”

“Their presence is essential to our very existence. Losing structures such as Pompey and the Seaman’s Chapel is akin to losing an organ. We survive, but we are never quite the same.”

Sonia Farmer,
The Nassau Guardian
Arts & Culture

Published: Saturday, December 3, 2011

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