Preserving Bahamian Heritage

Gail Saunders
Department of Archives

I have been involved with the preservation of Bahamian heritage and culture since the late 1960s when I began the survey of the records and archives of The Bahamas. Since that time much has happened. The Bahamas established a Public Records Office (National Archives) in 1971. In 1972, the office promulgated rules to regulate searches and inspections of records, the destruction and disposal of public records, and the setting of fees for copying services. Over the next several years, the records and archives were identified, selected, sorted, and listed, staff were trained in various aspects of the work, a repair-bindery and a microfilming program were established, a Research Room became operational, and a Records Management Program was established.

A Guide to the Archives was published in 1973. From a very early time in the Archives' existence, exhibitions were held annually and facsimile booklets printed and distributed to schools and sold to the general public. An Oral History Program was also begun by interviewing and recording on cassette tapes scores of senior citizens. Some transcriptions were completed.

In the absence of a National Museum System, the Department of Archives was designated as the organization in charge of the Bahamas' material heritage – its historic buildings and sites, and its archaeology.

I worked with a small group of professionals, particularly two enthusiastic and well-qualified history and social studies teachers Ms. Grace Turner and Ms. Kim Outten from the mid 1980s. Consulting archaeologists, Anthony Aarons worked with us between 1988 and 1993 and Dr. Keith Tinker from 1997 to the present. Together, we worked as a team to conserve the Bahamas' material culture. The Department of Archives spearheaded and controlled archaeological projects – the documentation and preservation of historic buildings, the curation of artifacts, and the establishment of a number of museums. The latter included the restoration of Vendue House, a former slave market, and its transformation into the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation in 1993. Similarly, the Department of Archives also advised and worked with the Central Bank of The Bahamas to restore and refurbish Balcony House, now the Balcony House Museum. The department also set up exhibits in the restored Commissioner's Office and jail in San Salvador, which is now the San Salvador Museum. Preparations are being made to organize museum exhibits at the Long Island Museum.

In cooperation with the Preservation of Historic Buildings Committee of the Bahamas National Trust, the Department of Archives' museum section prepared a Register (list) of Historic Places of New Providence, which was presented to Minister of Education Mr. C.A. Smith in 1993. The Register of Family Islands' historic places is in progress.

In the years leading up to the Quincentennary celebrations, there was feverish activity. The Museum Section advised on and participated in the building of a number of Lucayan canayes and also a Lucayan village in San Salvador, which was constructed in 1992. The first Lucayan canaye was developed in May 1992 from plans prepared by Mr. Tony Aarons at the Bahamas National Trust. Included among those constructed were one on the grounds of the Department of Archives, one at the Quincentennial Commission, and one in the Spanish Wells Museum.

Since 1991, the Department of Archives assisted the Ministries of Transport and Finance in the administration of "The Abandoned Wreck Act" (1965) by reviewing salvage permits issued, verifying inventories of artifacts, and giving advice on Government's selection of historic artifacts.

Recently, the Director of Archives and two museologists (curators) have been involved in the National Gallery Committee, which is restoring the nineteenth-century mansion Villa Doyle and converting it into the National Art Gallery.

Not only did the Department of Archives strive to preserve and conserve; it also sought to disseminate historical information which had been largely neglected in the past. It prepared Guides, booklets, and a newspaper series, "Aspects of Bahamian History." Additionally, the Director was involved with producing a video, on "The Bahamas: History and Culture," which is shown to students and visitors who visit the Archives and the Museum. The Director and professional staff also gave numerous talks and lectures to schools, Rotary clubs, tourism training courses, and various groups.

From early in its history, the Bahamas Archives recognized the importance of creating ties with international and regional bodies. The Archivist assisted in revitalizing the Caribbean Historical Archives Association (CARBICA) and organized an executive meeting in Nassau in 1972. At its conference in Guadeloupe in 1975, I was elected President for four years. The third Caribbean Archives Conference was hosted by the Bahamas Archives in 1979. I also served as Secretary and Treasurer of CARBICA and Deputy Director. Ms. Elaine Toote is now Treasurer of the organization. CARBICA has served to strengthen and maintain relations between Caribbean archival and archive-related institutions. It has also fostered cooperation and training through the convening of seminars and conferences. The Caribbean Region has been actively engaged in testing the International Records Management Trust Training modules for Archives Administration and Records Management. This has affected the education of archivists and policy formation in the region.

The Department of Archives is also a longstanding member of the International Council on Archives (ICA), the Commonwealth Archivists Association, the American Society of Archivists, the Society of Archivists (Great Britain), and the British Records Association. I served as a member of the executive of the International Council on Archives between 1974 and 1982. The Department of Archives has been mainly involved with the preservation and transmission of tangible cultural heritage. However, it has also contributed significantly to the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of intangible cultural heritage.

I was chosen, as Director of The Bahamas Archives, to head the research component, acting as Bahamian Curator for the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in 1994, which featured The Bahamas. Archives staff served as researchers and coordinators for the festival.

Our participation in the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in 1994 was a significant milestone in the preservation, transmission, and revitalization of intangible culture. The Festival project generated important records including oral history interviews on cassette and video tapes. A wonderful half hour video was made by the Ministry of Tourism, the coordinating agency for the festival, showing highlights of Bahamian participation in the planning and staging of the actual festival. Also produced was a compact disk of folk music by musicians who performed at the festival, entitled "Islands of Songs.”

An Educational and Cultural Kit entitled "Our Bahamian Heritage: A Resource Guide for Teachers," was compiled by the Ministry of Education, the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, and the Embassy of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and produced in 1995. The Resource Guide includes Primary Level and Secondary Level sections. The Primary Level section covers crafts and folk art, music, storytelling, foodways, and celebrations. Included in the Secondary Level Resource Guide are the same topics, but with additions of an essay on “The Peoples and Cultures of The Bahamas,” and a guideline to research entitled “Exploring Your Own Communities.” There is also an Appendix with additional materials.

The Kit also contains two videos, "To be a Bahamian" and "Island Portraits: Traditional Culture in Andros," and two audio cassettes with sacred songs and storytelling in The Bahamas. There are also color posters on various aspects of culture such as “Living by Land and Sea,” “Making a Basket,” “Making Music,” “Home Life on a Family Island,” “Religious Celebrations,” and “Family Names in The Bahamas.” The Education Kit is a wonderful resource for teachers. It is filled with information not usually found in history books and also has suggested questions and activities.

Since 1994 and The Bahamas' participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, there has been a renaissance in the preservation and transmission of the country’s cultural heritage. Junkanoo artists have been more active, and many of the artists have become entrepreneurs by creating souvenirs using Junkanoo themes and materials. In 1996, the Junkanoo participants at the 1994 Festival were invited back to perform on the Mall at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to celebrate Independence Day in the United States. Jackson Burnside, an architect and Junkanoo artist, developed a colorful studio “Doongalik,” which features Junkanoo arts, paintings, crafts, and publishing. It also displays traditional elite and folk architecture. Mr. Burnside now hosts a weekly radio show on Junkanoo. Groups also perform at the Ministry of Tourism's "Junkanoo in June" Festival.

Stimulated by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Bahamas Government developed a Heritage Village (or Park) now known as the “Down Home Fish Fry.” This village contains vernacular houses, a story-telling porch, a concert stage, and an outdoor oven. It adjoins the conch village developed by the Conch Vendors Association and is the site for various festivals, such as the Sea Food Festival in October and Junkanoo in June which sponsors food and craft vendors and Junkanooers who hold rush-outs every weekend in June.

Additionally, one of the researchers and coordinators of the Bahamian Smithsonian team Kayla Edwards now hosts a television program “Mirror, Mirror" which showcases Bahamian history and culture. Former General Manager and Minister of Government Charles Carter hosts a weekly radio program which presents Bahamian folklorists, historians, musicians, and artists.

The Bahamas has also made strides to protect, preserve, and regulate both tangible and intangible heritage. The tangible heritage will be protected by the Antiquities, Monuments, and Museum Act of 1998, which comes into operation on 1 July 1999. The Act provides for the declaration and preservation of historical monuments and sites, regulates archaeological excavations, and establishes the National Museum of The Bahamas. It establishes regulations for issuing licenses and permits and provides for preservation, conservation, and restoration. It provides for analysis, documentation, and presentation of antiquities and monuments and for the establishment, operation, and administration of a conservation, archaeological, and paleontological research unit, and of the historical site unit of the National Museum.

The Copyright Act of 1998, enforced from 1 July 1999, makes better provision for the protection of intangible heritage, specifically the rights of performers and others in live performances, such as drama, music, choreography, or recital of a literary work. It also protects authorship of literary, musical, choreographic, audio-visual, and artistic works, motion pictures, and sound recordings.

I feel that I have been fortunate to live at this very exciting and creative time in our history. Much has been achieved in developing new heritage institutions and in preserving the traditional institutions of culture and heritage. It has been an interesting, stimulating, and gratifying experience, and I hope that the current positive trends in preservation, conservation, and transmission of both our tangible and intangible cultural heritage will continue.