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.


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