A look at the National Museum’s epic voyage through history.
By Dr. Donald H. Keith, President, Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation
It’s hard to say exactly when and where some journeys begin. More often than not we wake up one day and it dawns on us that we’re going somewhere. Maybe it isn’t even clear where, but we’re definitely on a journey. The founding of the Turks & Caicos National Museum (TCNM) provides a case in point. This year we are celebrating its 25th anniversary, but in retrospect its journey actually started 36 years ago—11 years before it even opened its doors—with the discovery of a very important shipwreck.
1980: The journey begins
It was not an auspicious beginning. I had barely even heard of the Turks & Caicos Islands when I received an invitation from Governor John Strong to survey a shipwreck on Molasses Reef on the Caicos Bank. Afterward, the TCI Government issued a license to the Texas-based non-profit organization I worked for, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, to excavate the site with me as the director. At the time no one could possibly have known this is where the TCNM’s journey would begin.
Our interest in the ship was not “treasure”—it had none—but the historical information we hoped to tease out of the artifacts and samples we recovered. But when our research vessel arrived at Molasses Reef to begin the excavation we discovered to our horror that treasure hunters had blown the site up with homemade pipe bombs, viciously mutilating some of the artifacts.
It was a dark hour for me. Should we continue with the project or chalk it up to just another site destroyed by treasure hunters and sail back to Miami? I decided to persist with the excavation—one of the best gambles of my life! Three seasons of field work on the site and nine years of conservation and analysis of the artifacts at the Ships of Discovery laboratory at Texas A&M University followed. Our findings established that the Molasses Reef Wreck was an anonymous Spanish ship from the earliest days of exploration and discovery in the New World, dating to the early 1500s—the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Americas!
We were ready to return the entire artifact collection to the TCI. But return it where? To whom? To which island? Grand Turk was the seat of government, but had no place to put it, no way to show it, and no real understanding of what could be done with it. Providenciales, the de facto capital of the TCI, showed no serious interest. It was beginning to look like the Molasses Reef Wreck artifacts would end up ignominiously lost and forgotten in a government warehouse.
The journey could have ended then and there but for a letter I received from Mrs. Grethe Seim, an amateur historian and archaeologist residing on Grand Turk. She knew exactly what to do with the Molasses Reef Wreck collection: use it to create a museum! But what to call it and where to put it? She knew the TCI Government could not afford to create or support a national museum, so she proposed to make it a non-profit organization governed by a Board of Trustees and mandated by the TCI Government to collect, preserve, and disseminate knowledge of the cultural and natural history of the Islands. With enthusiasm and speed seldom seen in the Islands in those days Grethe bought and remodeled the Guinep House, one of the oldest, most prominent, and sturdiest masonry buildings on Grand Turk’s Front Street, converted it to exhibit space, contracted with Ships of Discovery to design and build the exhibits, and had the Molasses Reef Wreck collection shipped to Grand Turk for installation. With much pomp and circumstance the TCNM opened its doors to the public on November 26, 1991.
1992-1999: The road leads on
Grethe never intended for the National Museum to be just “another roadside attraction” for the entertainment of visitors. She knew that although the Guinep House was an appropriate exhibit space, a national museum has responsibilities and priorities far beyond its exhibits. It must explore its cultural and historical assets, be prepared to conserve and protect those assets against loss or damage, disseminate the knowledge it collects, and continue to do this in perpetuity.
To meet those responsibilities, she commissioned construction of the Science Building adjacent to the Guinep House. With its base of operations firmly established, the Museum’s journey joined “a wider way, where many paths and errands meet.” My Ships of Discovery colleagues and I were drawn into terrestrial and underwater archaeological field work, archival research projects in museums and repositories all over the world, in-house artifact conservation, oral history collection, and the design and creation of new exhibits.
On trips to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, Grethe and I discovered forgotten troves of world-class Native American artifacts from the Turks & Caicos acquired by those museums a century ago. Even more importantly for the native population of the TCI, we discovered the story of the slave ship Trouvadore, wrecked on East Caicos in 1841, and its possible connection to the settlement of Bambarra on Middle Caicos. This launched the Search for Trouvadore Project 10 years later, which continues to this day.
We also became aware of research conducted by bona fide archaeologists and historians whose work preceded the establishment of the Museum. The published works of Drs. Shaun Sullivan, Glen Freimuth, and William Keegan, who surveyed and excavated Native American sites throughout the Caicos Islands in the 1970s, revealed that they were densely populated before the arrival of Europeans. The archival research and fieldwork done by Drs. Charlene Kozy and Paul Farnsworth on the Loyalist Planters, who fled from the newly established United States to the TCI following the War of Independence, explained where the native population of the Caicos Islands came from and that their ancestors built the impressive plantation ruins that still dot the Islands today.
Dissemination of the new knowledge we were gaining was always just as important as the discoveries we were making. Much of this knowledge has been shared in the Astrolabe, a regular feature in Times of the Islands since 1997. If one were to bind all 76 issues into one book it would comprise more than 700 pages! With the help of donations from Hon. Lillian Swann-Misick and Anthony L. Hall, the Museum’s second director, Nigel Sadler, issued three Museum publications during his tenure: A Guide to the Turks and Caicos National Museum, Turks and Caicos Islands in Old Photographs, and Slave History in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Ships of Discovery produced numerous reports and videos detailing its investigations of sites on land and underwater throughout the Islands including Sapodilla Hill and Cheshire Hall on Provo, Maravedi Cove and Yankee Town on West Caicos, Cotton Cay, Fort George Cay, the Molasses Reef Wreck, HMS Endymion, and the slave ship Trouvadore. Grand Turk resident Donna Seim used an island folktale as the basis for her beautifully illustrated children’s book Where is Simon, Sandy? All proceeds from its sales go to support the Museum’s Children’s Club.
The journey continued with many stops along the way. After noticing that inscriptions made in the soft limestone atop Sapodilla Hill were disappearing as a result of natural erosion and vandalism, we mapped, photographed and moulded them in situ. We surveyed all the windmills on Grand Turk and salvaged and conserved the cast iron parts from one example after it toppled into its salina. After Capt. Bob Gascoine donated a 900 year-old Lucayan paddle he found in Grand Turk’s North Creek, we conserved it in the Ships of Discovery laboratory and returned it to become the main attraction in the new Lucayan Gallery. We surveyed and mapped Cheshire Hall on Provo. Museum Manager Brian Riggs recreated several donkey carts on Grand Turk using the last surviving original cart as a pattern. One of these can now be seen in front of the Museum, complete with donkey! Our collections continued to grow as generous donors, including US servicemen stationed in the Islands in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, sent us old documents and photographs.
2000: New itinerary
The Museum’s founder, primary benefactor and my good friend, Grethe Seim, passed away unexpectedly in 2000, leaving the Trustees to ponder the question of where the Museum’s journey was taking us. Although Grethe bequeathed a generous endowment to the Museum, it would not last forever. Other sources of funding would be needed in order to continue to operate as a non-profit, non-governmental entity.
It was clear that Provo was fast becoming the hub of all communications, transportation, business, and tourism in the Islands—and that the Museum must create a presence there in order to stay relevant. But the prevailing feeling among the Trustees was that a shift of focus to Provo was too big a detour from the Museum’s journey. Consequently, early efforts to gain a toe-hold on Provo were half-hearted. That resistance changed dramatically in 2008 following the destruction wrought on Grand Turk by Hurricane Ike. If the winds had struck from the west instead of the east, all of Front Street—including the Museum—would have been severely damaged. There is no denying that the Museum’s location on Grand Turk, literally less than a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, puts its assets and collections at risk. It was imperative that we move at least the most important and fragile collections to a safer place.
A lucky break came in 2009 when a chance meeting between the Museum’s third director, Dr. Neil Hitch, and real estate developer Frank Coggins resulted in the offer of an acre and a half of land with a small building on it in The Village at Grace Bay. Over the next few years our presence on Provo continued to grow. A grant from the Krieble Foundation enabled the Museum to buy the land outright and a grant from Yves Micheli enabled us to convert the existing building to a “mini-museum” we call the Development Office.
A series of grants from a generous Pine Cay donor enabled the Museum to buy another acre adjacent to the office and build the Caicos Heritage House and Garden, a “living history” outdoor exhibit recreating what life was like at a typical Caicos Islands homestead 150 years ago. Our goal is to fit it out with a full complement of normal household items such as cookware, tableware, gardening and farming tools, lighting devices, fishing equipment, boat-building and sailing paraphernalia, etc., and demonstrate how they were used. We want it to be occupied by Museum staff posing as “family members” of the homestead who can explain the activities of daily life and share anecdotes with visitors. At last we had a foothold on Provo, but with it came the increased expenses associated with operating two locations simultaneously.
2010: Pursuing it with eager feet
In 2010 the Trustees decided to try a different approach to operating the Museum and put a business team in place. Our current director, Pat Saxton, tightened the budget while at the same time finding new funding for special projects on Grand Turk such as the Botanical and Cultural Garden, a bird watching trail, five new exhibits, and a total renovation of the Guinep House, including much-needed hurricane windows and doors and an outdoor theater for special events. Pat and her team have brought in more funding for special projects than in all the previous 20 years, including two grants from the British Library to organize, digitize and safeguard the Museum’s archives. This led to a discussion with the TCI Government on the importance of a National Archive, an idea whose time has come, and we are hopeful that government will contribute to its creation.
We also put Museum staff member Candianne Williams in charge of the Development Office in the Village at Grace Bay. She has been instrumental in finding new ways to encourage Islanders to participate in events such as the opening of the Caicos Heritage House and Garden and the Annual National History and Cultural Heritage Quiz. Numerous school groups and civic organizations have learned more about the TCI’s cultural and natural history of the Islands while visiting the Office.
2016: And whither then?
So much for the journey behind us, what about the future? Where is the Museum headed? The Museum’s greatest challenges for the next few years will be to expand its operations on Provo while maintaining its facilities on Grand Turk. It is an opportunity not only to unveil new exhibits specific to the history of the Caicos Islands, but also to update old exhibits and create new ones on Grand Turk.
What is our vision for the new museum on Provo? It will be necessary to construct a multi-purpose facility built to international museum standards to tell the story of the Caicos Islands. In addition to keeping our collections and the National Archive safe, a building that meets those standards for security and function will allow us to request repatriation or long-term loans of artifacts from these Islands now in the Smithsonian, the American Natural History Museum, and other foreign institutions.
It will have a chronological theme, telling the cultural and natural history of the Caicos Islands starting with how they were created eons ago and how they were colonized by plants, animals, and eventually humans. Exhibits will represent the TCI’s first inhabitants, the Lucayans, who settled in the Caicos Islands at least 700 years ago. The Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit will exemplify the arrival of the first Europeans about 500 years ago.The Islands entered mainstream world history during the brief but hugely important period from about 1790 until 1840 when the most fertile land in the Caicos Islands was cleared for cultivation by Loyalist refugees displaced after the American War of Independence. They and their slaves planted cotton and sugar cane and built docks, roads, homes and settlements, bringing civilization to the Islands for the first time. Other exhibits will deal with more recent historical periods in the Caicos Islands including the sisal, sponge, and guano enterprises and the evolution of the tourist industry.
Perhaps the most historically significant exhibit in the Provo Museum will be the stories of two slave ships, Esperança and Trouvadore, that wrecked on Middle and East Caicos in 1838 and 1841. Old records indicate that some people living in the Caicos Islands today may be the descendants of survivors of these shipwrecks. Museum-sponsored expeditions in 2004, 2006, and 2008 combed the area where Trouvadore sank resulting in the discovery of a wooden hull and artifacts believed to be the remains of the ship. Esperança remains to be found.
We want to move the Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit to Provo because it wrecked on the Caicos Bank and is part of Caicos history. This gives us the opportunity to replace it on Grand Turk with an equally exciting exhibit about HMS Endymion, a 44-gun warship that wrecked on the Turks Islands Bank south of Salt Cay in 1790.
A related objective is to help the government establish a National Archive, a separate entity staffed and maintained by the TCI Government. At present the only safe and accessible repository for important records pertaining to the history and governance of the TCI is the National Museum, and it is overtaxing our resources.
Join us on the journey
The next few years have the potential to be the most interesting and fulfilling part of the Museum’s journey so far—unless we run out of gas! Twenty-five years after its founding, the National Museum is still supported primarily by Grethe Seim’s bequest. Memberships, donations, entry fees, and grants from foundations and individuals make up the rest of our income and frankly, it hasn’t been enough.
When Grethe put the word “National” in the Museum’s name she never meant to imply that it was part of and funded by the TCI Government. But that is what most people have assumed and it has hurt our fundraising efforts. We are very successful at raising money for special projects, but no one wants to pay for infrastructure expenses—salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, insurance and the like. The sad fact is that the people who benefit most from the Museum’s work—the businesses, citizens and residents of the Islands—contribute the least, probably because they think it is government-funded.
Recently the Museum asked the TCI Government for financial help with an annual stipend, and we are hopeful that with the many new programs we have initiated to promote, protect and preserve the history of the TCI, the government will step up. Realizing this will not happen if Islanders do not understand and appreciate the importance of the Museum, we are concentrating on outreach programs throughout the Islands.
The Museum’s budget is unbelievably small, given its level of activity and accomplishments. It has only one full-time employee, Director Pat Saxton on Grand Turk and a part-time museum representative on Providenciales, Candianne Williams. Our guides are all part-time. A handful of loyal volunteers cheerfully provide assistance with everything from making building repairs to producing the Astrolabe and maintaining our website.
Exploring, collecting, preserving, and disseminating: everything the Museum does is for the Greater Good. We have to keep following the road and finding the wherewithal along the way to continue the journey—which is where you come in. The Museum needs your support. It will not survive without it. Financial assistance is crucial, but we also need volunteers, donors of in-kind services, old photographs, and authentic items for fitting out the Caicos Heritage House.
Yes, it has been and is an ambitious journey. We are fast approaching yet another fork in the road, and the path we take will be critical. One path, with infrastructure properly funded by the government or a large endowment, leads to the realization of our vision for building and operating the Museum on Provo, the Caicos Heritage House and Cultural Garden, and National Archive. The other path, with no reliable source of infrastructure funding, leaves the Museum unable to grow and stranded on Grand Turk to brave the vicissitudes of fortune while primarily serving passengers from the Cruise Ship Center.
Beautiful by nature—enthralling by history
Life may be a journey rather than a destination, but most of us do not just drift aimlessly. We have places to go and things to do. Our journey becomes a series of destinations. The people we meet, adventures we have, the things we do, the joy and tragedy we experience, our successes and failures, are what comprise our lives. In the end, the story of that journey is all any of us leaves behind.
Each of us has his or her own story, but the stories of all the people who ever lived here, when combined, form its history. The ultimate destination the Directors see for the Museum is its secure, continued existence collecting, preserving and disseminating knowledge of the cultural and natural history of the Islands in perpetuity for generations to come.
For more information or to volunteer time, talent, or resources, contact Museum Director Pat Saxton at (649) 946-2160 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com