Back in times in the Barbados Museum

Debbie Jacob pays a visit to the island’s picturesque museum

Children can try on clothes from bygone days, look in the mirror and have their picture taken. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados MuseumOld fashion bread cart. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados MuseumSocial history display: Amerindian section. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados MuseumSocial history display: education and religion section. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados MuseumTraditional carnival costume: Egungun. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados MuseumTraditional carnival costume: Shaggy bear. Photograph courtesy of the Barbados Museum

Everybody goes to Barbados for fun in the sun, but there’s more to the island than white-sand beaches and water sports. There’s a rich blend of European and African history waiting to be discovered at the Barbados Museum, just a stone’s throw from the racetrack. The museum is at the Garrison, a British military prison built in 1817. In 1930 it became the home of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

The story of Barbados begins with its natural history. There is a wide variety of the island’s coral in one of the museum’s displays, and the sea and its surroundings are represented by displays of native Barbadian fish, including flying fish, kingfish, grouper, stoplight parrot fish and rock hind.

A display of seagrass includes turtle grass, a favourite of the nesting turtles that visit Barbados. The museum educates children about preserving the turtles that visit these shores. Even hotels in Barbados learn how to welcome turtles: they’re advised on which lights to use to illuminate their beaches so the turtles will come ashore.

“It’s not unusual for guests to see turtles right from the hotel room,” says Christine Skeete, marketing director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

The section entitled “In Search of Bim” features the social history of Barbados, beginning with Amerindian artefacts dating back 2,000 years, though new excavations suggest the Amerindian population of Barbados might go back 4,000 years. There is a collection of tools, trinkets and jewellery, much of it gathered from the Port Charles area, where contractors stumbled on an Amerindian site.

In 1627, the British settled in Barbados, which was then deserted. The last Amerindians had apparently just fled, leaving a bridge that looked as though it had been recently constructed. The British named the area Bridgetown – now the island’s capital. With them came the tobacco, cotton and indigo industries, which didn’t do well. They were replaced with sugar, and African slaves were shipped in to cultivate it. The history of slavery is well documented in the museum. Slavery ended in 1834 and apprenticeship in 1838, and the museum’s displays highlight the emerging free Barbados society.

The African Gallery traces the story of the continent much further back, to Australopithecus afarensis. You’ll also see unusual items like the Sailors’ Valentine, shells arranged in patterns inside a wooden casing that can open and close. Barbadians proudly claim that Sailors’ Valentines originated on their island, because the Sailors’ Valentines that have writing all say “Barbados”.

The music display contains traditional percussion instruments from Africa, including those of the tuk bands (based on British military bands, they are accompanied by characters of African origin). There’s a small cricket display and a section dedicated to transport. A heavy metal casing surrounds a wooden barrel used to carry molasses. Slaves pulled these barrels through the streets.

The museum’s displays carry you outside as well. In the courtyard there is a display of carts, once pulled by donkeys. One of the first fire carts is on show. Originally insurance companies owned these carts, dispatched only to burning homes that displayed their insurance card. If you didn’t have insurance, your house would burn to the ground.

A section on architecture shows the homes of all the social classes in Barbados, most notably the chattel house, which could be broken down and moved around.

But my favourite display was the Warmington Gallery. Standing outside the museum, you can peek through windows and see typical rooms from upper-class homes of nineteenth-century Barbados. There’s a bedroom, a children’s nursery, dining room, and sitting room, all fully furnished.

The art gallery too depicts West Indian life in the nineteenth century, and all social classes are represented. There are prints depicting life in Barbados, St Vincent, Dominica, St Kitts and Jamaica, giving a sweeping comparison of life in much of the West Indies. There’s also a map collection from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

Finally, there’s an entire section devoted to displays for children, including a doll and costume exhibit, where children can don clothes from the bygone days, look in the mirror and have their picture taken. They can see what life was like in Barbados in the nineteenth century, when children worked for eight to ten cents a day, chasing blackbirds from corn or picking beetles from cane.
You can visit the Barbados Museum from 9am to 5pm Monday – Saturday or 2pm to  6pm on Sunday