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The Institute of Jamaica and preserving Jamaica's cultural artefacts

Published:Friday | October 16, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
The Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston.

We've come to another National Heritage Week with foreigners apparently more willing to invest in preserving Jamaica's cultural artefacts than we ourselves are.

The massive debate over reparations and the prison gift from the visiting British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has almost completely overshadowed the gift of $57 million to the Institute of Jamaica by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, on his visit on the heels of Cameron.

The Institute of Jamaica and its associated National Library of Jamaica, the successor of the famous West India Reference Library, need help but they are not the worse. Last week-end there was a poorly organized vigil in Paul Bogle's Stony Gut on the Saturday night and a Sunday daybreak march to Morant Bay, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Bogle's march which set off the Morant Bay Uprising on October 11, 1865, out of which Bogle has become a National Hero.

There is nothing at Stony Gut to make it a national monument. There is nothing at Morant Bay, either. The historic courthouse is burnt down. The damaged Edna Manley sculpted Paul Bogle statue has been removed for repairs and not replaced even for the 150th anniversary. There is no museum. There are no story boards. But we chat a lot about the martyrs of Morant Bay.

One of my most moving moments on a visit to South Africa was going to the Hector Pietersen museum in Soweto. Hector Pietersen was a student killed by police bullets in the 1976 student uprising against Apartheid and specifically against the policy which switched the language of instruction to Afrikaans for Black students. The Mandelas' Soweto home is a heavily visited national monument and museum.


struggling along

Our heroes' homes, where they exist, are studies in neglect. There is no National Heroes museum. And even their shrines at National Heroes Park are surrounded by decreptitude.

The few national museums set up at Port Royal, White Marl, Spanish Town and Seville have either been abandoned or are struggling along in poor condition and are certainly not any centres of national pride or tourist attractions with a flood of visitors.

Fire in the old St Catherine Parish Council buildings some years ago sounded the death knell for that magnificent Georgian square in front of old King's House in the old capital which was poorly maintained even before the fire.

The Discovery Bay history and culture park and travellers' stop set up and maintained by the Kaiser Bauxite Company for many years has been allowed to die with the company's withdrawal from Jamaica. There is no museum of Kingston, a city with a story to tell to the whole world. Towns around Jamaica have no displays of their history, something you see in almost every village in Britain and much of Europe and the USA.

We haven't gotten around to even thinking about a music museum or a sports museum, two areas in which this little country has dominated the world. Fortunately, we have a fairly decent National Gallery for art.


massive industries

We led the world in the export banana trade from the 1870s. We've built massive industries in tourism and bauxite. We've had over 350 years of sugar. There are no historical-cultural markers for these and a lot more.

There are no places to go to see the life and work of our famous sons and daughters and the major events which have shaped our history and culture. I could go on and on.

The Minister of Tourism, Dr Wykeham McNeil, has recently been touting heritage tourism particularly for the parish of Westmoreland in which his own constituency sits. Old talk. Serious investment financing required.

Former Director of Tourism Robert Stephens will probably go to his grave without seeing his two-decades old proposition and plan for the development of Port Royal, one of the hottest such sites in the New World, into a major heritage tourism centre linked into Kingston and the surrounding Port Royal mountains in what is now St. Andrew. A plan talked and dreamed to death.

Long before our times, the Institute of Jamaica was set up in 1879, during the vigorous governership of Sir Anthony Musgrave, to be a centre of scholarship and preservation for the arts and sciences. The Institute law, Law 22 of 1879, says, "Whereas it is expedient to encourage the pursuit of Literature, Science and Art in Jamaica: Be it enacted by the Governor and the Legislative Council ... as follows: There shall be a Board for the encouragement of Literature, Science and Art. The Board shall be a body corporate by the name of 'the Board of Governors of the institute of Jamaica'."


collection of works

The IOJ had a broad remit. The Institute was to establish and maintain a public library and reading room, a museum and collection of works and illustrations of science and art. It was to provide for the presenting of papers and the delivery of lectures and courses of instruction and the holding of examinations on subjects

connected with Literature, Science and Art. A university before there was one, a museum, a library, a centre of learning, scholarship, collection, preservation and use of things Jamaican.

The Institute also was to arrange for "the application of scientific and artistic methods to the industries of Jamaica and to stage exhibitions from the industries of the country." And the IOJ did have a fair stab at delivering on its responsibilities.

A combination of factors has pushed the 136-year old Institute into the shadows. A number of other institutions have arisen over the years to take portions of the IOJ's original mandate. State financing became spotty. And the prime real estate bequeathed by the law to the IOJ at Date Tree Hall on East Street in the heart of the city has followed the rest of downtown Kingston into decay and decline.

The younger Ward Theatre at North Parade bequeathed to the city in 1912 by Charles Ward, Custos of Kingston and nephew to John Wray of J. Wray & Nephew, has been shuttered for years. That's where the People's National Party was launched on September 18, 1938, and many other landmark civic events have taken place. A cultural icon abandoned to rot as Marcus Garvey's Liberty Hall on King Street was for many years before a belated rescue and restoration.

The Government of Japan from the other side of the globe believes that it is worth investing in the sustenance and upgrade of the Institute of Jamaica.

In 1986, the National Library of Jamaica which had been established in 1979 around the extensive collection of the Old West India Reference Library at the centenary of the IOJ staged an exhibition on "The Institute of Jamaica a Cultural Catalyst". A booklet with the same title was published documenting the history and the work of the IOJ.

The research staff at the Library dug up the publication for me for this column. This is a service offered by the NLJ but is little known or used by the public.

The WIRL/NLJ holds an unmatched collection of Jamaican-West Indian material going back centuries but which is poorly used and poorly preserved. The Japanese grant should go a long way to help where the Government and people of Jamaica won't.

The Cultural Catalyst publication documents the work of the IOJ in education, library and archives, museums, publishing, science, support for the arts, the encouragement of business enterprise, running a zoo. The full works.

Some bits and pieces: Running overseas examinations and the Jamaica Scholarship, advocacy for the establishment of the University College of the West Indies with Secretary of the Institute Philip Sherlock later serving as Vice-Chancellor of the UCWI. The establishment of The West India Reference Library, by the legendary Frank Cundall, an Englishman coming out to the colony to serve as Secretary/Librarian from 1891 until his death in 1937. Cundall himself wrote a whole library of books on things Jamaican.

There are the museums established and the natural history collection at headquarters. The publication of the annual Handbook of Jamaica from the 1880s into the 1970s as well as the Journal of the Institute of Jamaica and later on (1967) Jamaica Journal, extraordinarily valuable sources for researchers.

Organisation of the great Jamaica Exhibition of 1891 featuring agricultural and industrial products of Jamaica alongside overseas exhibitors. Work in the arts which led to the establishment of the schools which have merged into the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the establishment of the National Gallery of Jamaica.

And, of course, we're far more familiar with the Musgrave medals named after the founding Governor and awarded in gold, silver and bronze categories for outstanding contributions in Literature, Science and Art.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and