Trinidad and Tobago
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Revamping the National Museum

Newsday Reporter The National Museum and Art Gallery in Port of Spain. - File photo
The National Museum and Art Gallery in Port of Spain. - File photo

Udecott has issued a call for proposals to restore and upgrade the National Museum and Art Gallery.

What is planned is structural, with an emphasis on roof repairs, but the museum is overdue for rethinking as more than a repository of artefacts.

Its holdings should be assessed, their strengths noted and areas of weakness targeted for future acquisitions.

The collections at the museum have tended to be offered to the public as a mix of curiosities, archaeological finds next to modern art and paintings in the service of conjuring a sense of the rich cultural history of TT.

The refurbishment should be designed to advance the goals of a modern museum building, which goes beyond keeping cobwebs out of old objects. That said, preservation is an important aspect of any museum, and best-practice methods should be employed to ensure their safekeeping for future generations.

But beyond collection, the institution is expected to organise and classify its holdings and display them appropriately in order to instruct and entertain its audience, which can range from schoolchildren on a day trip to researchers seeking deeper insight into aspects of the nation’s history.

To leverage their collection to build understanding of national history and legacy, museums cannot only rely on display space, which is never adequate, and must deliver assets for public scrutiny through new and changing exhibitions, multimedia displays, informed lectures and where appropriate, entertainments that repackage what is known about the past to life for today’s audiences.

For any plan to refurbish the space that the National Museum occupies in the Royal Victoria Institute built in 1892, there must also be a balance between preserving the history of the building itself while creating greater flexibility for rotating exhibits that explore and reassess themes under discussion in the wider society.

The proposed revamp of the museum should position it for greater outreach to its potential customers, moving from a position of awaiting questions to using its resources to pose them.

In the UK, museums and galleries of historical art have been pushed to reckon with the changing perceptions of those who have been captured and lionised in pigment and sculpture, and TT should lead its own reframing of the conversation around our natural and cultural history.

As other institutions arise in the country to archive specific segments of its legacy, the museum should be positioned as a sounding board and guide in successfully and effectively curating historical and cultural artefacts, acknowledging the enthusiasm of sectors of the national community to acknowledge and celebrate their slice of our history in their own way.

Patch the leaks, by all means, but when the work is done, a national museum should demonstrate leadership in modern curatorial methodology and encourage adventures and discoveries in the country’s multi-layered past.