Caribbean Cultural Repository Inventory as Disaster Response

By Andris Straumanis, George Mason University

As an intern with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Heritage Rescue Initiative, I am one of several students from George Mason University who have been spending the past several weeks cataloging museums and other sites in the island countries and territories of the Caribbean Sea that were hit hard by hurricanes Irma, Maria, and other storms.

One aspect of the work that has surprised me is learning about all the cultural repositories that exist in the Caribbean. Some of them are well known, such as Museo de las Américas (Museum of the Americas) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Founded in 1992, its mission is to promote the history and culture of the Americas “from Alaska to Patagonia.” However, a visitor to the museum’s website will be informed that because of Hurricane Maria, activities at the museum are suspended until further notice.

The Museo Antigua Aduana in Arroyo is an art museum, but includes a collection of items belonging to Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. He set up the first telegraph system in Puerto Rico in 1858.

Other, smaller museums are what might best be described as “ma and pa” operations, although that makes them no less interesting or important to maintaining culture heritage. They focus on specific communities or people or topics. One can only imagine what they may have lost due to the hurricane. Ninety percent of Puerto Rico still has no power, according to The New York Times, and people have had to turn to generators to supply their electricity.

In Antigua & Barbuda, where my attention has been focused in recent days, I have become fascinated with the islands’ colonial history. Among important sites in St. John’s, Antigua, is Nelson’s Dockyard and its Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of “the only continuously working Georgian dockyard in the world,” according to National Parks Antigua.

While Antigua was spared the brunt of Hurricane Irma, Barbuda was far less fortunate. The island’s population of about 1,600 people was evacuated ahead of the storm and only now is beginning to return. But to what? An estimated 90 percent of buildings on Barbuda were destroyed, according to The Guardian. Several television news reports, such as one by the BBC, show the degree of destruction. The geo-referencing work we are doing to catalog cultural repositories on these islands does not tell us what has become of the sites, only that they once were. I wonder if the building housing the island’s Museum and Aquaponics Research Centre is still standing.

It is heartbreaking to think about what all has been lost in these natural disasters. I can only hope that the work we are doing through the Smithsonian Cultural Heritage Rescue Initiative will draw attention to the need to safeguard these sites and will help people recover their history.

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