“Education is critical for development. Education that is devoid of the cultures of the people in the society is empty and incomplete. One of the fundamental objectives of the museum is to educate, and it is only the museum that has the capacity and the ability to impart cultural education effectively as it houses the tools and materials for doing so in its collections. In modern society, the museums enrich the educational process by exposing children and indeed the public to their history in a positive way; they assist our future generations to understand and appreciate their history and culture and take pride in the achievements of their forbears.”
These words were spoken by Emmanuel N Arinze, President of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, at a public lecture at the National Museum here in Georgetown in May 1999.
Arinze makes the point that museums are not “dead” spaces, meant only for the repose of artefacts and records but are living, breathing institutions that are essential for the development of a nation. In a place like Guyana with its racial divisions, museums are central to creating a more understanding and respectful environment.
President David Granger’s plans to have the artefacts and records housed at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology hoisted off to some other space – and this without any prior consultation, as is usual with him – brings the role of our museums into sharp focus.
That Granger is often touted as a “historian” adds another level of grievance to his plan since their interest in the past should make any historian particularly sensitive about preserving anthropological and archaeological materials.
The Walter Roth Museum’s artefacts and records are not only substantive to Guyana’s history but to the history of the world and Government must be aware that moving any of the collection’s pieces, some of which are prehistoric, would require the expertise of trained preservationists.
Granger was, however, also the leader of an elections campaign that exhorted Guyana to “forget the past”. The irony of a “historian” having such utter disregard for history was never lost on a good section of the electorate.
The Walter Roth Museum is home to historical materials of Guyana’s indigenous peoples and the Museum of African Heritage houses a collection of art, artefacts and records that are important to the history of African Guyanese.
Castellani House is both an art gallery and museum that allows students and art historians to trace the development of local art themes, styles and techniques. By acquiring pieces from Guyana’s major artists for the National Collection, the gallery provides recognition for the artists and their work, and international status and exposure for the country’s art.
The National Archives and National Museum round off the list of state funded institutions that preserve past records and allow for research and analytical study by students and academics.
At Meten-Meer-Zorg, WCD, the private Heritage Museum, curated and managed by Gary Serrao, is an eclectic collection of maps, pamphlets, books, and an array of artefacts that also tell the Guyana story.
Absent from the above list is any museum dedicated to the history of the Indian-Guyanese people. Premier Cheddi Jagan was urged by Indian leaders in the early 1960s to use the monies remaining in the Indentureship Fund to build Indian cultural and research centres in the three main regions. He refused.
When Forbes Burnham came to power, he used those very funds – earmarked for the return passage of Indian labourers to India – to help finance the construction of the National Cultural Centre.
A good friend of mine approached a PPP parliamentarian at the turn of the century with a query about the PPP/C Government establishing an Indian Museum and Research Centre. He was rebuffed by the curt response: “If you-all want a museum, you’ll have to build it yourself!”
One hundred years after the end of Indentureship, there is, as yet, no national repository of Indian Guyanese artefacts and records and it is unlikely that any of the Granger Government’s cultural policies will note the lack and make the establishment of an Indian Museum and Research Centre a national priority.
It does appear that any such an institution will have to be built through private efforts and from funding from the Indian-Guyanese community since governments here are yet to acknowledge the essential role of museums in fostering national development.
The Granger Government’s shoddy behaviour over plans to move the Walter Roth Museum proves it as does the absence of any state funded museum dedicated to the history and heritage of the Indian-Guyanese people.