ALISSANDRA CUMMINS: “MY AIM IS TO QUESTION WHAT ‘HISTORY’ IS”

Barbados Museum director Alissandra Cummins on the cultural responsibilities of Caribbean curators — as told to Philip Nanton

Alissandra Cummins. Photograph by Mike Toy

I grew up in a family that loved art, loved to draw, and I loved to draw
too. My brother William Cummins is a great artist, my friends are artists.
However, I haven’t been able to balance my love of art and drawing with my
role [as director of the Barbados Museum].

History also has always been a love of mine. At primary school there was
only a little of it. What concretised it for me was going into secondary school
and seeing it as a whole discipline. My teacher Dr Payne was excellent, and
later at Queen’s College, when I learned that I could blend my two loves —
history and art — into one subject — art history — I knew that was what I
wanted to do.

At A-level stage, I began to see art as not just about pretty things but
about putting a face to things, about identity. Under my tutor Joyce Davis
it was possible for me to see how art inspires various identities.

When I was a child, my late aunt Gloria Cummins brought me to visit the
Barbados Museum from time to time, and later, on school visits, I came to
know some parts of the museum quite well. What interested me most were the
Amerindian artifacts. I also remember seeing the [Agostino] Brunias prints
and other paintings with beautiful women and strong men dressed in extraordinary
costumes — long dresses and huge headties — and wondering, were they real?

When I was appointed director of the museum [in 1985],I was
received with great nervousness, I think, and not a little apprehension!
I was only 26 years old and a woman — neither of those circumstances had
happened at the museum before. A few council members felt obliged to ask
whether I thought I could handle the job. I replied, no better or worse than
anyone else. But the museum’s president, the late Jack Dear, never had a
moment’s hesitation in supporting me. Twenty years later the roof hasn’t
fallen in, and I am still here. I guess I did what needed to be done.

As director, my aim has been to challenge views about heritage presentation
and museum development. It’s also to challenge who owns that history, how
to tell it, and to question what “history” is.

The Barbados Museum was established in 1933 by a group of people interested
in historical research. They spoke to one another and published papers about
the history in which they were interested. In that sense they were introverted.
This was typical of how heritage institutions developed. Around 1983, it was
recognised by government and the council of the museum that we could be doing
more in the world of history, archaeology, and heritage studies. There was
a clear need to change museums from places where a set of objects were laid
out, primarily for the interest of researchers, to places that are a resource
for educational and civic purposes.

Museums in the Caribbean have to find meaning and relevance in helping nations
to construct new identities in the post-colonial Caribbean. I can’t say that
I’m unique in having this for my mantra in the work that I do, but I have
worked at clarifying this core ethic for many audiences. We have to find ways
of escaping the confines of the museum walls.

Another way to construct new identities is through our education outreach
programme. We have trained education volunteers to interpret the display galleries
for school children, and our education officer visits schools and adds to
the learning taking place there.

We recently completed the renovation of our Africa Gallery. The work was
started in 1999, and the gallery was reopened in November 2004. The gallery
examines the way that the history and civilisation of Africa informs Caribbean
creole culture. But it is not a viewing gallery about slavery.

I resisted the idea that we had to tell the story of African influence in
Barbados only through the lens of slavery. Often, by focusing only on slavery,
we fail to get a sense of the richness and wealth of the continent. From the
museum’s perspective, it is better to depict slavery in situ, where it occurred;
that is, in a plantation context, rather than to have it as an isolated exhibit
in our halls. So the African Gallery presents the slave trade as one component
of trade in Africa. Our gallery also presents the links between Africa and
the Caribbean as a natural outcome of the spread of African civilisation
throughout the world.

It’s tough to try to name a single object, out of the 250,000-plus artifacts
the museum owns, as the one that most fascinates me, but the tiny silver coin
from Axum, Ethiopia, dating from 5,000 BC, would be a major one. It symbolises
the incredible wealth and expanded reach of an African empire well before
similar developments in Europe.

 

We have to be flexible and open to new ideas. We have to recognise that
it’s not simply the objects that we curate which are important. Last year,
the museum collaborated with the installation artist Joscelyn Gardner in
the presentation of a mixed media exhibition, White Skin, Black Kin: “Speaking
the Unspeakable”
. By using still and moving images, sound, and the innovatory
use of our gallery space, Joscelyn was able to present a feminist view of
the inner life of a plantation great house. The installation challenged views
of race and family that are often swept under the carpet. It attracted many
visitors. It was popular partly because it was not the museum saying, this
is your history. It was an intervention by someone completely outside the
museum, saying, this is my interpretation of the story that I know. I was
intrigued by her notion of history and her wish to implement it on our site,
and that is where our collaboration started.

We have also to be aware that, though we live on an island, we are not an
island. I was a founding member of the Museums Association of the Caribbean.
It’s a small institution, as there are a limited number of functioning museums
in the region. But we work together in areas as diverse as disaster preparedness,
training of staff, and consulting on museum development. For example, when
the volcanic eruption took place in Montserrat, the association used its resources
to send people to help move artifacts to safer sites.

The direction that we have charted is flexible, open, and increasingly involves
multimedia. It’s important to recognise that it’s not simply the objects in
the museum that are important. It’s as much the experience of learning and
enjoying and encountering history, its colour and movement. A museum also
has the capacity to help people to be open to other cultures.

Museum curators are often regarded as custodians of national memory, and
thus “authorised” in specific ways to interpret collective experience on behalf
of the local population. But we also have to be sensitive to the fact that
we are not the only ones capable of telling the story. We must make space
and opportunities for others to do so. We can’t be static in what we’re doing.
Our activities have to be tied to an educational base that meets the needs
of the adult and the child. What we are doing is interpreting some aspects
of history. That is what heritage is about.