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Trivial Travails

The trials, tribulations, and joys of creating a new exhibit.

Story & Photos By Dr. Donald H. Keith, President, Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation

Putting the new “Golden Age of Grand Turk” exhibit together has been a challenge for us in a lot of different ways. This will not be obvious to the casual observer. When the 1,400 pounds of exhibit materials left my shop seven weeks ago I thought the hard part was behind me. I didn’t count on what it would take to finish the job here on Grand Turk.

Golden Age of Grand Turk new exhibit

Golden Age of Grand Turk new exhibit

Now that it is mostly complete I can admit that there were times when I was ready to lay down my tools and just walk away. Times like when we discovered that the lens turns too fast and we had to make a “field modification” with chains and sprockets to fix it. Or like when we discovered that the suit and breastplate that we purchased from different sources don’t actually fit together. Or like when an approaching tropical storm forced us to hunker down instead of getting on with it. Or when the lifting crane doesn’t show up and we have to lug the 320-pound clockwork down two dozen steps in the Science Building, across the yard, and up the creaky double switch-back steps of the Guinep House to the second floor. But every time that happened I would stop and think about how tough, persistent, and industrious the people who built the lighthouse were, or how bold and ingenious Jeremiah must have been to climb into his heavy diving dress and drop into the unknown abyss below to risk his life looking for treasure or salvage. It humbles me to think how our travails are trivial compared to what those people accomplished 160 years ago.

A simple plan . . .
It started out harmlessly enough. For the last twenty years the main room on the second floor of the Guinep House has had the same exhibits—old-school “cabinets of curiosities,” each filled with objects illustrating a particular theme such as stamps, coins and tokens, old maps and books, Royal visits and such, all thoroughly labeled and requiring a lot of reading. It was a good collection, but times have changed and most of the Museum’s visitors now are cruise ship passengers on a tight schedule. We knew we needed to make changes, but were stymied by a combination of indecision and lack of funding.
That all changed last year following major renovations to the Guinep House’s physical structure after which I made an appeal in Times of the Islands for funding to create an exhibit on the Golden Age of Grand Turk. A generous anonymous donor responded and work began immediately.
The main elements of the Golden Age exhibit were naturals: the lighthouse and pioneer “hard hat” helmet diver Jeremiah Murphy. Both arrived on Grand Turk in the same year, 1852. Between them, these two iconic characters embody and symbolize the spirit of the Golden Age. The lighthouse improved navigation safety in the Atlantic approaches to Grand Turk, ushering in the new age of prosperity, while Jeremiah personifies the adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit of the Age. We have quite a thick file on the lighthouse, and its Fresnel lens has been on exhibit for almost 20 years, but we felt it deserved a better exhibit. The discovery of Jeremiah’s story is a little more recent, and there are still a lot of mysteries surrounding him and his adventures.
We knew that we wanted a more modern approach to the new exhibits using brief videos to tell their stories instead of burying them in paragraphs of text. We also wanted to create “context” or environments for both exhibits. And this is where we got in over our heads . . .
We wanted to make Jeremiah come alive, to show him, not just to talk about him. That meant we had to assemble a complete diving apparatus for him—suit, helmet, boots, knife, belt, ropes, hose and air pump—and give it a life-like setting. We wanted to show his face, so we put his helmet on his knee. But what did he look like? There is only one photo—provided by Jeremiah’s great-great grandson, Dr. Davis Challis—that purports to show him. It is faded, grainy, and poorly exposed, but good enough to help us create a likeness. We gave that image to a sculptor to re-create Jeremiah’s face, head, and neck—all you can see of a diver once he’s dressed.
As you might imagine there is very little original diving equipment left from the 1800s worldwide. We knew from the beginning it was unlikely we could find any of Murphy’s original gear. Fortunately, helmet or “hard hat” diving equipment changed very little between the 1850s and 1950s, so we approximated Murphy’s outfit with bits and pieces sourced from collectors in the US and UK. This took the better part of a year. The most important part of Jeremiah’s kit was his air pump—a simple, reliable, and very heavy hand-cranked machine. We found one in the UK, an ex-Royal Navy unit that weighs in at 700 pounds when fully assembled. And today’s sport divers complain about how heavy and cumbersome scuba diving gear is!
The environment we created for Jeremiah’s mannequin is a corner of his “dive locker”—the place where he worked and kept his equipment when ashore. After planking the walls and floors we populated it with the kinds of equipment he would have had on hand and objects he would have salvaged from shipwrecks: lead, bronze, and anything made of copper. We even gave it a window with a view of the sea!
We already knew that displaying the lighthouse lens by itself in a static exhibit doesn’t do it justice. In actual service it is a lively contraption. The lens rotates atop a tall pedestal, producing the illusion that the light inside is “blinking.” Meanwhile, the clockwork whirrs and clicks away steadily, its drive gear engaging the driven gear around the perimeter of the lens turntable. A good exhibit would reunite the lens, light, pedestal, and clockwork and make them work together again. Sherlin Williams suggested recreating the lamp room in a tower attached to the Museum’s balcony. We thought that idea was good, but a little more than we could afford. Eventually it morphed into recreating the lamp room in a circular space inside the museum with a panoramic view behind it and illustrations around it showing the actual lighthouse.

Some assembly required
I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like here in 1852 when the lighthouse arrived in gigantic panels and sections that had to be reassembled—without benefit of a set of instructions! How long would it have taken in 1852 to send a letter to the manufacturer in London requesting instructions, and get a reply? Months?
Just imagine—the ship arrives loaded with enormous semi-circular cast iron sections weighing many tons each. They have to be off-loaded and moved to the highest point on Grand Turk, miles away. How did they do it? The reef that crosses the northern end of Grand Turk and the steep cliff between the sea and the bluff makes it impossible to off-load directly to the construction site. So you have to build a road. If you think Lighthouse Road is bad now, back then it was only a horse path winding through the bush. And you have to build some kind of wheeled vehicles capable of supporting tons of cast iron parts.
Building the bottom section on the ground would be relatively easy, but every level after that gets harder because you have to build taller and taller scaffolding and cranes. Each panel is bolted to the adjacent ones at flanges on the inside. You can still see the big letters and numbers cast into the interior of the panels, identifying them by level and section. And don’t forget that you have to build a catchment all around the foundation and cisterns to collect rain water as well as a bunker for the fuel supply and a substantial house for the lighthouse keepers to live in because they’re too far from town to commute. It must have been the biggest, most complex construction project on Grand Turk until the US military bases were built 100 years later.
As this article goes to press at the end of August the exhibit is still not finished. So I can’t show you what the final product looks like. You will have to come and see it yourself! But I can tell you that Museum Director Pat Saxton is planning to hold a Grand Opening just about the time this issue of Times of the Islands comes out. You can stay tuned for updates on when that will happen by visiting the Museum’s blog at http://tcmuseum.org/view/a-day-at-the-national-museum/ or by visiting the Museum’s website at http://tcmuseum.org.

Behind the scenes
An ambitious exhibit like this draws on the talents of the unsung heroes: archival researchers, videographers, project directors, voice recorders, heavy machine operators, donors of artifacts, woodworkers, printers, painters, photographers, artifact conservators, foundry operators, and of course the anonymous donors who make it possible in the first place. Thank you all! We hope you will be pleased with the final product.
The historical research for both exhibits was done mainly by Capt. Bob Gascoine, Veronica Veerkamp of Windward Media, Dr. Randel Davis, Dr. David Challis, and Sherlin Williams.
Gary “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” Knappenberger of Enberg Tool designed and cast the parts of the Lamp Room that we needed: the base plate, column, collar, and tub. He also designed the motor drive that we will use until we figure out how to make the clockwork turn the lens using gravity alone.
Both video scripts were written by Veronica Veerkamp, and Jeremiah’s voice-over was provided by Patrick Noonan.
Responsibility for art direction, design, video, and image production fell to Richard Coberly of Windward Media whose motto is “Hammer to fit, paint to match.” Just kidding, of course.
In addition to accompanying me on several research expeditions to the top of the lighthouse and undertaking the thankless task of conserving Jeremiah’s lead-soled dive boots, Sherlin Williams’ principal contribution was the idea to build the lantern room around the light, lens, pedestal, and clockwork to put them in the proper context. Sherlin’s motto is “Easy to say, hard to do!”
Sculptor Kim Crowley noticed that a friend of his, Adam Gates, has a facial structure remarkably similar to Jeremiah’s in the one photograph we have of him and convinced him to endure the life-cast procedure to create Jeremiah’s head (hope that didn’t end the friendship!).
Credit for the hands-on construction goes to Richard Coberly, Neil Saxton, Randy Davis, Gary Fine, Charles Kesnal, Shaun Sullivan, Glen Freimuth, Glen Wright, and Solomon Dames.
Otis Morris of Morris Construction brought in the machinery needed to move the heavy, but fragile air pump from the Science Building to the second floor of the Guinep House, a feat we could not have managed with manual labor alone.
Artifacts for the Jeremiah exhibit were generously donated by members of the Murphy family, Mitch Rolling, and Seamus Day.
Last, but by no means least, accounting and budgeting were ably provided by Museum Director Pat Saxton and Friends of the Museum Secretary/Treasurer Dr. Toni Carrell.



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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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