Word of mouth (Jul/Aug 2024)

Donna Yawching shares why you must visit the unforgettable Children’s Gallery in the Barbados Museum, then takes us inside Cuba’s Gibara International Film Festival

  • The Barbados Museum & Historical Society includes dedicated children’s and other educational galleries plus an on-site research library. Photo courtesy Barbados Museum & Historical Society
  • The Barbados Museum & Historical Society includes dedicated children’s and other educational galleries plus an on-site research library. Photo courtesy Barbados Museum & Historical Society
  • The Barbados Museum & Historical Society includes dedicated children’s and other educational galleries plus an on-site research library. Photo courtesy Barbados Museum & Historical Society
  • Photo by Neftali/Alamy Stock Photo

A magical mystery tour at the Barbados Museum

As museums go, the Barbados Museum is indisputably charming. Compact enough to be manageable, diverse enough to be interesting, it is housed in the 19th-century military prison of the historic colonial Garrison — part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Its exhibits cover all the expected bases: natural history, Indigenous history, colonial history, social history, a collection of fine arts and antique furniture, and a couple of galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

What is unexpected is the Children’s Gallery. While many modern museums include interactive kiddies’ corners squeezed in amidst the adult stuff, few (and I would wager, none in the Caribbean) devote an entire gallery exclusively to the enchantment of children.

Crammed with colourful, engaging — and, of course, educational — exhibits, this space is simply a delight, designed to appeal to children of all ages. It offers hands-on, whimsical activities that illustrate such concepts as flight, motion, sound waves, and seismic activity — even architecture.

On the Shake Table, you can build a house of blocks, then test its resilience against an earthquake. You can gawk at bugs through a microscope, with the image clearly projected on a large screen. You can generate energy via handles and pedals, and learn how much it takes to power a light bulb versus a laptop, or an electric drill.

You can compare the different intensities of sound waves by banging on a skin drum or a steelpan; and (my favourite), you can perform medical procedures on an imaginary patient, pressing buttons to indicate your choice of treatments. (Full disclosure: my patient probably died.)

Alissandra Cummins has been the director of the Barbados Museum since 1985. She explained that there has been a Children’s Gallery since 1953 (the Museum itself opened in 1933), but it was of course dated, despite some tinkering around the edges in the 1980s.

“It was worn-out, old fashioned … it did not represent contemporary museum design,” she pointed out. “It was all in the form of scale models — models of Bridgetown, the sugar cane industry … what the makers considered to be the foundation of Barbados.” The space was used mainly for teaching classes.

It wasn’t until 2012 that discussion began around the idea of transforming the space completely into “a much more tangible, interactive experience”, Cummins recalled. A broad-based committee of teachers, parents, and policy-makers (many of whom had visited contemporary museums abroad) was formed to give “insights and inputs”.

In 2014 a private foundation, the Maria Holder Memorial Trust, came on board, funding the dream — officially named the Jairus Brewster Children’s Gallery — to the tune of about BDS$800,000 (approximately US$400,000).

Design work started in 2018; various science education museums in the United Kingdom were consulted; and designer Dennis Brennan, also from the UK, was chosen to execute the project. He had lived in the Caribbean, Cummins explained, and therefore understood the importance of keeping the exhibits relevant to local interests.

Even so, she said, “Most of the concepts came from the teachers and the parents, who wanted to make sure that certain things would be covered, such as the environment and the human body.”

Finally, in 2021, the exhibit was opened to the public — COVID-19, of course, having played its part in delaying the event — and the response has been enthusiastic.

Usership has grown steadily amongst families, school groups and special interest groups. One excited parent, Risée Chaderton-Charles, exclaimed: “If you haven’t yet taken your kids, you must go visit this gallery. Borrow a kid, if necessary; it is absolutely spectacular. Five stars!”

The gallery has also piqued the interest of educators and researchers. The Ministry of Education and other teacher training organisations send neophyte teachers to observe how the children interact. The museum itself does mini-surveys to gauge how much the children have learnt during a visit. “People doing research in education are very interested, both local and foreign,” Cummins said.

But, she added: “The best reviewers are the kids. They drag their parents in there, and they are staying in there. They are not leaving until they have touched, and felt, and experienced every single thing. To me, that’s what a museum is about.”

The Gibara International Film Festival

The town of Gibara, on Cuba’s east coast, can best be described as “sleepy”. There are few cars or trucks; when one rattles by, the stray dogs snoozing in the middle of the road don’t even bother to move — the motorists drive carefully around them.

This would seem an unlikely venue for a major cultural showcase, but once a year this tranquil fishing village comes alive to host the Gibara International Film Festival — an event which has been described by CubaPLUS Magazine as “one of the most original, important and culturally integrated festivals in the world”.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But, undeniably, this festival is unique — and quintessentially Cuban. Conceived by the country’s renowned director Humberto Solás, the festival was launched in 2003 under the name Cine Pobre (Low Budget) Festival de Gibara, to highlight “quality cinema” from independent (usually young and impecunious) filmmakers.

Why Gibara and not Havana, you may be wondering. In 1968, the town was the setting for Solás’ internationally lauded film Lucía; clearly nostalgia won out. (Unsurprisingly, the festival’s top award is the Lucía de Honor.)

Originally limited to films and audiovisual works created for less than US$300,000, in 2018 the festival changed its name — and possibly its focus — and is now open to a wider range of creative endeavours.

Participants from all over the world — Iran, Ecuador, India, France — submit their works to be judged by panels of national and international luminaries in the field of cinema and the arts.

This year, the festival runs 6–10 August, with 45 works competing in six different categories. In addition to the three main juries, there will be one made up of youth moviegoers.

The programme includes special screenings and exhibitions from other international festivals; intellectual discussions in the mornings; and press conferences in the afternoons. And, as always in Cuba, there will be music, dancing, theatre, and activities for children in various squares, parks and cultural spaces.

In past years, the festival has drawn a loyal following of local and foreign visitors, attracted by its “alternative” vibe, as well as the charm of its setting. The pandemic, of course, took its toll, shuttering the festival for two years, and it has struggled to recover from the financial hit to the island’s tourism sector.

But if 2023 was any indication, the festival appears to be resurging. There is every reason to hope for a riveting event.

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