What If?

What if Providenciales had a National Museum?

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

This year, 2010, marks the 30th anniversary of the archaeological investigation of the Molasses Reef Wreck, the event that led to the establishment of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. As the archaeologist who directed the excavation, I received a government license permitting me to take all artifacts and samples back to my lab at Texas A&M University for conservation and analysis. Ten years later the collection was ready to be returned to the Islands.
But where to put it? Fortunately, some far-sighted people on Grand Turk recognized that the remains of the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Western Hemisphere deserved to be exhibited. A museum was needed, but what kind? I suggested that it should be called the Maritime Museum, but wiser heads prevailed and in 1990 the Turks & Caicos National Museum was created as a non-profit, non-governmental (private) entity mandated by government to collect and preserve the cultural and natural history of the Turks & Caicos Islands.
It has now been 20 years since the Museum was created. Much has changed in the intervening decades. Many of the businesses and professional services based on Grand Turk in 1990 moved to Providenciales. The Museum’s founder and principal benefactor, Mrs. Grethe Seim, passed away. Cruise ship visitors became the Museum’s main clientele. Finally, in 2008, Hurricane Ike forced us to recognize how vulnerable the museum’s location, less than a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, is to disaster. These and other developments convinced the Museum’s Board of Trustees to build an additional facility on Providenciales. The lead article in this edition of the Astrolabe elaborates on our plan and tells why and how YOU — individuals, corporations, businesses, and anyone who calls Providenciales home — can help.

JAL Consultants' rendition of proposed museum for Providenciales

JAL Consultants' rendition of proposed museum for Providenciales

What’s in a name?
Over the years, the Turks & Caicos National Museum has often been referred to as the “Grand Turk Museum,” due to its location. But in reality it has always represented all the Turks and Caicos Islands. A National Museum is not a particular building, or location, or special exhibit — it is an idea. It is the collective memory of a nation. Is that important? You bet! What makes a nation? What makes England England instead of France? What makes Scotland Scotland instead of Ireland? What makes the Turks & Caicos the Turks & Caicos instead of the Bahamas? It isn’t the gene pool, because most populations are composed of many different kinds of people and the gene pool is constantly changing anyway. It isn’t political divisions — lines drawn on a map — as those change almost every day. No, it’s history. The history of your country is your history and to a considerable extent it tells the rest of the world who you are.

Current museum home at Guinep House on Grand Turk

Current museum home at Guinep House on Grand Turk

The museum we are planning for Providenciales would not merely duplicate the one on Grand Turk, because the histories of the two island groups are very different. The venue would be entirely different as well. The exhibits on Grand Turk are in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island, conveniently located on Grand Turk’s historic waterfront. No equivalent location or structure exists on Providenciales. Instead, the museum will be housed in a new, state-of-the-art, purpose-built structure in the Grace Bay area. Such a structure would not only insure the safety of the artifacts and exhibits. It would also allow the Museum to apply for repatriation of many splendid artifacts known to have originated in the Islands, now residing unseen in the storage rooms of major American and European museums and private collections.

A unique history
So what is the history of the Caicos Islands, and how is it unique? What kind of stories will the National Museum on Providenciales tell? Let’s start with how the Islands got here. It will surprise visitors to learn that the geologic history of the Caicos Bank started millions of years ago at the time when the North American continent separated from Africa. “Beautiful by nature” yes, but how did it get that way? The Islands’ hard rock core is now buried beneath thousands of feet of marine growth and sediments, some of which are mineral dust blown all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa! The land that we see now has been both above and beneath the sea at one time or another. During the ice ages, the Caicos Bank was a single giant island almost 100 miles across and 450 feet above sea level, honeycombed with a vast cave system. At the end of the last Ice Age sea level rose again, drowning all but the highest 150 feet of the Bank.
Plants and animals found their way to the Islands and established themselves in the new environment. Then, about 1,300 years ago, the first humans — Arawak-speaking Tainos from Hispaniola — arrived in dugout canoes. Over the centuries they explored and modified their environment and developed their own distinctive “Lucayan” culture. Their settlements and campsites have been found all over the Islands. Following the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 1400s, the Lucayan population rapidly dwindled, disappearing altogether in just a few decades. Their sites were quickly swallowed up in the bush and forgotten for centuries until the 1890s, when guano miners found their well-preserved wooden artifacts hidden in caves. Since then, archaeological surveys and excavations have discovered evidence of large, elaborate Lucayan villages on Middle and North Caicos as well as smaller coastal sites where Lucayans harvested the sea’s bounty. Because the duho (ceremonial wooden stool) now on display in Grand Turk was probably brought there from the Caicos Islands, it will be moved to Providenciales to become part of the Lucayan exhibit.
The Caicos Islands are clearly indicated on the best and earliest map of the New World, the Juan de la Cosa map of 1500. There are tantalizing indications of very early European presence in the Caicos Islands such as the Molasses Reef Wreck and a Spanish coin found on West Caicos, but little is known about who was here or what they were doing in the 250 year period between 1500 and 1756 when the first detailed maps were made by a French cartographic expedition. Because the Molasses Reef Wreck was found on the southern edge of the Caicos Bank only 15 miles from Providenciales, we plan to renovate its exhibit and move it from Grand Turk to the new facility.
The outcome of the US War of Independence created the next wave of pioneer settlers of the Caicos Islands, the Loyalist planters, who began to arrive around 1789 to transplant their families, slaves, homes, and way of life from the southern colonies to the Caicos Islands. Although the plantation period lasted only about 40 years, the transformations it brought about in the Islands were numerous, profound, and still visible today in geographical place names, family names, plants and animals that they introduced, traditions, and of course in the forlorn but majestic ruins scattered through the bush. An exhibit about this period will examine who the new emigrants — Loyalist and slave families alike — were, what their homes, industries, and daily lives were like in their own words, and what the archaeological record has added.
A very important part of the history of the Caicos Islands was utterly unknown until just a few years ago when Museum researchers discovered that two slave ships wrecked in the Caicos Islands. The first was the Portuguese flag vessel Esperança which grounded somewhere off Middle Caicos in 1837 with 220 Africans on board. Most of the survivors were sent to the Bahamas, but some escaped into the bush. Only four years later a second slave ship, Trouvadore, with almost 200 Africans on board, wrecked on East Caicos. This time all the Africans were taken to Grand Turk and freed to become citizens. One theory holds that the town of Bambarra on Middle Caicos was founded by one or both of these groups of freed slaves. No one knows exactly when or by whom Bambarra was established, but in a landscape where other settlements have names like Prospect of Whitby, Kew, Blue Hills, Five Cays, Balfour Town and Cockburn Harbour, its name begs explanation. Bambara is both an ethnic group and a language spoken in Mali, West Africa. Could Bambarra have been founded by the Africans who escaped into the bush following the wreck of Esperança? Or possibly by Trouvadore survivors following an initial period of inculturation on Grand Turk?

What about the existing museum?
Will the National Museum on Grand Turk be stripped bare to furnish exhibits for Providenciales? Not at all. The National Museum has literally thousands of artifacts in storage that have never been shown to the public. Our plan is to replace the Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit with one about HMS Endymion, a 44-gun British warship that sank in 1790 at the southern end of the Turks Island Bank. Recognizing that the history of the Turks Islands is mainly about salt production, we will greatly expand our existing exhibits on that subject and add new ones. We also plan to create a new exhibit about the history of diving in the Turks & Caicos, beginning with the exploits of helmet diver Jeremiah D. Murphy, a larger-than-life adventurer who took up residence on Grand Turk in the 1850s and salvaged shipwrecks all over the Caribbean. After exploring the Royal Mail Ship Rhone, sunk in the Virgin Islands in 1867, Murphy brought its giant bronze bell back to the Islands. It now calls the faithful to services at St. George’s Anglican Church on South Caicos. South Caicos was also part-time home to the late Jacques Mayol, a world-famous free-diving record holder in the 1970s, author, lecturer and philosopher. More recently, in 2002, Tanya Streeter took advantage of the deep water just off Providenciales to set a new free diving record by descending to 525 feet on a single breath!

The tide of history . . . .
Reflecting on the Museum’s progress over the last two decades I am reminded of Shakespeare’s verse, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood lead on to fortune: Omitted, all the voyage of the life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” We have been talking about and planning to open a facility on Providenciales for 20 years, but now it is a necessity. The generous offer of the use of a small but very attractive building in the Village at Grace Bay has given the Museum a toe-hold, but it is just a start. Taking Shakespeare’s advice to heart, “On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures,” the Museum’s Development Committee on Providenciales has launched a Capital Campaign to make the National Museum on Providenciales a reality.
The plans are big, the numbers are large, and its success depends on enthusiastic public support. Our goal is to break ground for the new museum on Providenciales in November, 2011, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the day the National Museum first opened its doors on Grand Turk.
Since its opening day the Museum has been collecting and safeguarding objects, conducting historical research, inventorying sites of historical and archaeological interest throughout the Islands, advising government, cooperating with local civic and educational groups and coordinating the field work efforts of visiting researchers. All of this has been in addition to the basic function of creating exhibits to enlighten and entertain the public. We even managed to get some artifacts back from the Smithsonian on indefinite loan! The Museum has benefitted everyone in one way or another. Without our National Museum, both the past and the future would be noticeably dimmer.

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1 Comment

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Kaeden Cole
Jan 15, 2012 22:24

I value the article post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

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