Astrolabe

Vanishing Culture

Preserving Turks & Caicos’ historical archives.
By Dr. Neal V. Hitch, Director, Turks & Caicos National Museum
Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum
This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists on August 15, 2009, as part of a symposium on sustaining Caribbean archives. The theme of the symposium was the difficulty of sustaining archives in an area of the world where the climate is harsh and heritage preservation is not a cultural priority.
For many years, there has been an idea of a government archives somewhere on Grand Turk. It was housed in the post office, and then moved to the old prison after the new prison was completed. When the old prison was restored for a cruise ship visitor attraction, the archive was moved to the fire truck garage behind the old police station on Middle Street. This is now a restaurant. Many people on Grand Turk tell stories of seeing archive materials shoveled into the back of a pickup truck. Others tell stories of large personal collections that a few individuals have. What is known for sure is that the archives people remember have become smaller, and smaller, and . . .
Government archives
In 1983, James H. Neal, under the auspices of the Caribbean Research Foundation, completed a partial inventory of the government archives that were located in the basement of the post office. The inventory was carried out by 14 volunteers, who paid their own way to get to Grand Turk and who worked for six weeks with no compensation. The intention of the project was to arrange, prepare, and appraise the records for a national archive, which was to be organized at the end of the project.
The project had two goals: 1) “to give the Government access to records of permanent value which are no longer maintained in active files;” and 2) “to make available to the citizens of the Turks & Caicos as well as to the broader scholarly community, the raw material for historical writing and teaching.” (Neal, p. 4)
When work began, it soon became apparent that the Government archival collection was too large for the goal of conservation and appraisal. What was accomplished was the survey of open records on the basement shelves. Canvas bags filled with records were left for a future survey. At the end of the project the archivists created an inventory of what was surveyed.
Included in this inventory are over 2,000 titles, representing thousands of records. These included: Presidential Correspondence 1862, 1878; Damage to Waterloo when President Campbell left: 1873; Appointment of President Misick; American Seaman vs. Crown, Wreck of the Frigate “Severn,” 1858; Blue Hill Inhabitants; Puerto Plata Fire; references to Grand Turk in 1865: 1870-71; Question of doubloons as legal tender: 1881-1882.  This is just a selected few. The list of records that were here is impressive.
The conclusion of the project offered insight to the quality of the collection. Dr. Neal recommended that permanent storage for the archives should be found, an archives committee be established, and a professional archivist be hired by the Government to manage the vast collection of historical documents.
Further, it was concluded that the documents presented a truly unique history. It was understood that “records in various repositories in the United Kingdom might be used to document the story of the Turks & Caicos politically . . . the records on Grand Turk tell the story of the people of the Turks and Caicos.” These records represented the “story of schools and hospitals, storms and drought, families and churches, merchants and workers, a mosaic of generations of people of different walks of life which is responsible for what the Turks and Caicos are today.”  (Neal, p. 18)
The most valuable archival materials found in the James Neal survey were removed from the basement of the post office and “placed in the Victoria Public Library for safekeeping.” This included 96 file folders of material from the “Presidential era” which were stored in eight archival document cases. The library is not set up to be an archive nor do they have facilities for conservation or preservation of historical material. These archival boxes were stored in the attic where they got wet, were infested with bugs, and eventually disposed of.
In 1997, Barry Dressel, then director of the museum, moved the collection from the post office basement to the old prison and completed work trying to stabilize what was left of the collection. The archive consisted of plastic bags full of ledgers, letter books, and miscellaneous records. The collection has never been part of the museum, but from 2001 to 2005 Nigel Sadler, director of the museum, tried to monitor the remaining documents. Sadler also wrote several reports on the prospects of creating a sustainable archive. In 2002 he issued a report entitled “Development of the Old Police Station, Middle Street, Grand Turk,” which discussed a plan for renovating this unused government building into the archives. This report was widely circulated, but still today this building sits unused and neglected.
As a British colony, meticulous records were kept in the Turks & Caicos. It seems that recent local governments have not valued this historical record to the point of investing in its preservation. The Turks & Caicos are not unique in this loss of historical archives. The problem, however, is that because the country is so small, when a record or manuscript is lost it is usually the only one of its kind. Certainly, the management and storage of the government archives has not resulted in a sustainable archive.
Other historical records throughout the country are in the hands of private individuals. This is also not a sustainable situation for historical records. I have heard of records being found on the dump in Salt Cay and removed to the United States by a private individual. Archival records may have been saved like this, however, they typically will not survive through the next generation. People are very unwilling to part with their “treasures” no matter how they might have come by them.
To illustrate I will tell a story. Two years ago, a gentleman came to see me at the museum. He told me of important historical documents that he had that “he would never give to the museum.” Then he talked about a slave registry for the Turks & Caicos listing the names and occupations of every enslaved person in the country. He said he had seen this and knew the person who had it, but it had been gone for several years and no longer existed. Unless historical documents are placed in a public institution where they can be preserved, they will most certainly eventually be lost.
Though there has been talk about it for many years, today there is no national archive in the Turks & Caicos Islands and there is great doubt whether there is enough archival material left to create one.
The National Museum and archives
The Turks & Caicos National Museum is the only national institution with a mission, mandate, and a collections management plan that is aimed at the long-term preservation of archives and archival material. Though we are not a government entity, we have a small amount of historical archives that have trickled into the museum since 1991. The museum has not necessarily collected this material, but when it comes into our hands it is conserved, stored, and preserved.
On September 6 and 7, 2008, the island of Grand Turk was hit by a category 5 hurricane. This is where the exhibits, offices, archives, and storage facilities of the museum are located. Over 80% of the buildings on Grand Turk sustained damage. The museum and archives building sustained minimal damage. Not a single collections piece or any archival materials were lost. To a large degree, this owed to the design of our facilities and the successful implementation of our hurricane plan.
The major issue dealt with from a conservation standpoint was the lack of electricity for nine weeks. Humidity levels were very high but staff opened the buildings to get as much air flow as possible through the labs and storage areas.
Archives at the museum
Archival collections at the National Museum that do exist are made more valuable by the fact that so much has been lost. Many of the collections, however, are uncataloged and consist of multiple and often random letters and documents.
One of the best collections of historical correspondence is titled: “A List of Documents found Outside the Old Prison on the Ground. July 2005.” This uncataloged collection was rescued and conserved by Nigel Sadler. The collection contains two boxes of miscellaneous official correspondence during the 1850s and 1860s. The collection includes letters and affidavits about shipwrecks, references to military defenses, and letters about the salt ponds on Grand Turk.
As part of the Pine Cay Project “Be Your Own Curator” grant, many of these letters were scanned and transcribed as part of a new museum exhibit entitled “Read Your Own History.” Some of the letters in the collection turned out to be gems.
A letter dated 17th May, 1850 addressed concerns from the United States Consulate about the “urgency of the immediate erection of a light-house on the Northern Bluff of Grand Turk.” The Consul had been informed that the insurance on vessels coming through the Turks Passage had increased dramatically in Boston and New York. The Consul also pointed out that several wrecks had “taken place at night in remarkably fine weather.” The lighthouse would be erected two years later. (Forth, 1850).
Another document, dated 1862, is a petition for increasing the defenses of Grand Turk. The letter states “that these islands were many years ago in a good state of defense by having a number of Forts or Batteries on various advantageous points along the seaboard.” It also references “the six serviceable 24 pound cannons at present at Grand Turk.” (Report, 1862). These must be the cannons that now sit in front of the post office, which with their trunnions and light holes intact could still be considered serviceable.
The petition was put together in 1862 at the beginning of the American Civil War. The reason for the petition was to keep merchant ships from the “Federal states of America” safe from a “ship of war” that might be stationed in the Turks Passage. This owed to the fact that since the lighthouse was erected, hundreds of ships were now using the Turks Passage each year.
These stories are in the histories told by cab drivers and tour guides as they drive cruise ship passengers around Grand Turk. These few letters in the collection at the National Museum are the real historical record. They are the proof of the stories.
The few records that are left from the government archive are an indication of the strength of the archive. They may also be an indication of what has been lost in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Even if the archives still exist somewhere hidden in a dark corner, the loss is that they have not been publicly accessible for the last few years when tourism has become a dominant portion of the economy. A sustainable archive is directly related to the heritage tourism portion of a sustainable tourism economy.
Sources
James H. Neal, Colonial Archives Project: Grand Turk Island, Summer 2003. The Caribbean Research Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2003.
Nigel Sadler, Development of the Old Police Station, Middle Street, Grand Turk: Providing a Valuable Asset, Turks & Caicos National Museum, Revised September 2002.
Frederick Forth, Grand Turk, 17th May 1850, TCNM.
Report of a committee of officers on the defense of Turks Islands, 17th January, 1862, TCNM.

Preserving Turks & Caicos’ historical archives.

By Dr. Neal V. Hitch, Director, Turks & Caicos National Museum

Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum

This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists on August 15, 2009, as part of a symposium on sustaining Caribbean archives. The theme of the symposium was the difficulty of sustaining archives in an area of the world where the climate is harsh and heritage preservation is not a cultural priority.

Remains of Turks & Caicos Government archives in 1997

Remains of Turks & Caicos Government archives in 1997

For many years, there has been an idea of a government archives somewhere on Grand Turk. It was housed in the post office, and then moved to the old prison after the new prison was completed. When the old prison was restored for a cruise ship visitor attraction, the archive was moved to the fire truck garage behind the old police station on Middle Street. This is now a restaurant. Many people on Grand Turk tell stories of seeing archive materials shoveled into the back of a pickup truck. Others tell stories of large personal collections that a few individuals have. What is known for sure is that the archives people remember have become smaller, and smaller, and . . .

Government archives

In 1983, James H. Neal, under the auspices of the Caribbean Research Foundation, completed a partial inventory of the government archives that were located in the basement of the post office. The inventory was carried out by 14 volunteers, who paid their own way to get to Grand Turk and who worked for six weeks with no compensation. The intention of the project was to arrange, prepare, and appraise the records for a national archive, which was to be organized at the end of the project.

The project had two goals: 1) “to give the Government access to records of permanent value which are no longer maintained in active files;” and 2) “to make available to the citizens of the Turks & Caicos as well as to the broader scholarly community, the raw material for historical writing and teaching.” (Neal, p. 4)

When work began, it soon became apparent that the Government archival collection was too large for the goal of conservation and appraisal. What was accomplished was the survey of open records on the basement shelves. Canvas bags filled with records were left for a future survey. At the end of the project the archivists created an inventory of what was surveyed.

Included in this inventory are over 2,000 titles, representing thousands of records. These included: Presidential Correspondence 1862, 1878; Damage to Waterloo when President Campbell left: 1873; Appointment of President Misick; American Seaman vs. Crown, Wreck of the Frigate “Severn,” 1858; Blue Hill Inhabitants; Puerto Plata Fire; references to Grand Turk in 1865: 1870-71; Question of doubloons as legal tender: 1881-1882.  This is just a selected few. The list of records that were here is impressive.

The conclusion of the project offered insight to the quality of the collection. Dr. Neal recommended that permanent storage for the archives should be found, an archives committee be established, and a professional archivist be hired by the Government to manage the vast collection of historical documents.

Further, it was concluded that the documents presented a truly unique history. It was understood that “records in various repositories in the United Kingdom might be used to document the story of the Turks & Caicos politically . . . the records on Grand Turk tell the story of the people of the Turks and Caicos.” These records represented the “story of schools and hospitals, storms and drought, families and churches, merchants and workers, a mosaic of generations of people of different walks of life which is responsible for what the Turks and Caicos are today.”  (Neal, p. 18)

The most valuable archival materials found in the James Neal survey were removed from the basement of the post office and “placed in the Victoria Public Library for safekeeping.” This included 96 file folders of material from the “Presidential era” which were stored in eight archival document cases. The library is not set up to be an archive nor do they have facilities for conservation or preservation of historical material. These archival boxes were stored in the attic where they got wet, were infested with bugs, and eventually disposed of.

Barry Dressel, then-director of TCI's National Museum, moves the archives in 1997.

Barry Dressel, then-director of TCI's National Museum, moves the archives in 1997.

In 1997, Barry Dressel, then director of the museum, moved the collection from the post office basement to the old prison and completed work trying to stabilize what was left of the collection. The archive consisted of plastic bags full of ledgers, letter books, and miscellaneous records. The collection has never been part of the museum, but from 2001 to 2005 Nigel Sadler, director of the museum, tried to monitor the remaining documents. Sadler also wrote several reports on the prospects of creating a sustainable archive. In 2002 he issued a report entitled “Development of the Old Police Station, Middle Street, Grand Turk,” which discussed a plan for renovating this unused government building into the archives. This report was widely circulated, but still today this building sits unused and neglected.

As a British colony, meticulous records were kept in the Turks & Caicos. It seems that recent local governments have not valued this historical record to the point of investing in its preservation. The Turks & Caicos are not unique in this loss of historical archives. The problem, however, is that because the country is so small, when a record or manuscript is lost it is usually the only one of its kind. Certainly, the management and storage of the government archives has not resulted in a sustainable archive.

Other historical records throughout the country are in the hands of private individuals. This is also not a sustainable situation for historical records. I have heard of records being found on the dump in Salt Cay and removed to the United States by a private individual. Archival records may have been saved like this, however, they typically will not survive through the next generation. People are very unwilling to part with their “treasures” no matter how they might have come by them.

To illustrate I will tell a story. Two years ago, a gentleman came to see me at the museum. He told me of important historical documents that he had that “he would never give to the museum.” Then he talked about a slave registry for the Turks & Caicos listing the names and occupations of every enslaved person in the country. He said he had seen this and knew the person who had it, but it had been gone for several years and no longer existed. Unless historical documents are placed in a public institution where they can be preserved, they will most certainly eventually be lost.

Though there has been talk about it for many years, today there is no national archive in the Turks & Caicos Islands and there is great doubt whether there is enough archival material left to create one.

The National Museum and archives

More of the TCI's archives as left in 1997.

More of the TCI's archives as left in 1997.

The Turks & Caicos National Museum is the only national institution with a mission, mandate, and a collections management plan that is aimed at the long-term preservation of archives and archival material. Though we are not a government entity, we have a small amount of historical archives that have trickled into the museum since 1991. The museum has not necessarily collected this material, but when it comes into our hands it is conserved, stored, and preserved.

On September 6 and 7, 2008, the island of Grand Turk was hit by a category 5 hurricane. This is where the exhibits, offices, archives, and storage facilities of the museum are located. Over 80% of the buildings on Grand Turk sustained damage. The museum and archives building sustained minimal damage. Not a single collections piece or any archival materials were lost. To a large degree, this owed to the design of our facilities and the successful implementation of our hurricane plan.

The major issue dealt with from a conservation standpoint was the lack of electricity for nine weeks. Humidity levels were very high but staff opened the buildings to get as much air flow as possible through the labs and storage areas.

Archives at the museum

Archival collections at the National Museum that do exist are made more valuable by the fact that so much has been lost. Many of the collections, however, are uncataloged and consist of multiple and often random letters and documents.

One of the best collections of historical correspondence is titled: “A List of Documents found Outside the Old Prison on the Ground. July 2005.” This uncataloged collection was rescued and conserved by Nigel Sadler. The collection contains two boxes of miscellaneous official correspondence during the 1850s and 1860s. The collection includes letters and affidavits about shipwrecks, references to military defenses, and letters about the salt ponds on Grand Turk.

As part of the Pine Cay Project “Be Your Own Curator” grant, many of these letters were scanned and transcribed as part of a new museum exhibit entitled “Read Your Own History.” Some of the letters in the collection turned out to be gems.

A letter dated 17th May, 1850 addressed concerns from the United States Consulate about the “urgency of the immediate erection of a light-house on the Northern Bluff of Grand Turk.” The Consul had been informed that the insurance on vessels coming through the Turks Passage had increased dramatically in Boston and New York. The Consul also pointed out that several wrecks had “taken place at night in remarkably fine weather.” The lighthouse would be erected two years later. (Forth, 1850).

Another document, dated 1862, is a petition for increasing the defenses of Grand Turk. The letter states “that these islands were many years ago in a good state of defense by having a number of Forts or Batteries on various advantageous points along the seaboard.” It also references “the six serviceable 24 pound cannons at present at Grand Turk.” (Report, 1862). These must be the cannons that now sit in front of the post office, which with their trunnions and light holes intact could still be considered serviceable.

The petition was put together in 1862 at the beginning of the American Civil War. The reason for the petition was to keep merchant ships from the “Federal states of America” safe from a “ship of war” that might be stationed in the Turks Passage. This owed to the fact that since the lighthouse was erected, hundreds of ships were now using the Turks Passage each year.

These stories are in the histories told by cab drivers and tour guides as they drive cruise ship passengers around Grand Turk. These few letters in the collection at the National Museum are the real historical record. They are the proof of the stories.

The few records that are left from the government archive are an indication of the strength of the archive. They may also be an indication of what has been lost in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Even if the archives still exist somewhere hidden in a dark corner, the loss is that they have not been publicly accessible for the last few years when tourism has become a dominant portion of the economy. A sustainable archive is directly related to the heritage tourism portion of a sustainable tourism economy.

Sources

James H. Neal, Colonial Archives Project: Grand Turk Island, Summer 2003. The Caribbean Research Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2003.

Nigel Sadler, Development of the Old Police Station, Middle Street, Grand Turk: Providing a Valuable Asset, Turks & Caicos National Museum, Revised September 2002.

Frederick Forth, Grand Turk, 17th May 1850, TCNM.

Report of a committee of officers on the defense of Turks Islands, 17th January, 1862, TCNM.



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