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How are Caribbean museums contributing towards a more sustainable society?

Since 1977 this day has been celebrated annually around to globe to highlight the importance of museums. Reminding ourselves of the positive impact of museums is particularly urgent at this time, because of the destruction of museums and cultural heritage that has been in the news. Some of these tragedies have been man-made (such as the destruction of the Mosul museum), others resulting from natural disasters (before and after images in Nepal). Terrorist attacks on museums, visitors and collections are highlighting how incredibly powerful culture is – so powerful that it is being fought over. Natural disasters are a painful reminder to work harder towards protecting our cultural heritage and to achieve a better balance with nature and our planet. It is particularly fitting, then, that the theme this year for International Museum Day is Museums for a Sustainable Society. Museums have the power to impact society greatly and positively. They can work towards a sustainable society by battling intolerance and working towards greater inclusivity. Culture can be used to bring people together, to overcome differences or to wear down negative stereotypes. On the other hand, museums can also teach us and inspire us to live sustainable lives and to be more respectful of our planet and its resources. With other NEXUS team members or alone, I have travelled throughout many islands and countries of the Caribbean to visit some of the hundreds of diverse museums in the region. How have the museums here been tackling the issues of social and environmental sustainability? I would like to share a few examples from Caribbean museums with you.

Environmental Sustainability

Let’s begin with the issue of environmental sustainability. There is a Science Center on Martinique, Centre de Decouverte des Sciences de la Terre, at the foot of the Mt Pelée volcano. Besides commemorating the devastating eruption of 1902, the center also keeps the volcano under constant observation and teaches local visitors how they can live safely in the shadow of an active volcano. An entirely different environmental initiative can be found further south on Grenada. Here, at the Belmont Estate, a former plantation has been turned into an eco-farm. The estate has geared itself towards agri-tourism, particularly related to cocoa beans. They produce their own fair trade chocolate and visitors can take a tour to participate in the entire process. Local produce and environmental sustainability is highlighted by several projects on the estate.

On Guadeloupe we find the Ecomusée CreoleArt, a museum project inspired by the vision of one woman: Jocelyn Roumbo. Over the years she has built an incredible ecomuseum that focuses on preserving traditional ways of life on the island. In an extensive garden you will find plants, trees, flowers and herbs that have all kinds of uses. Medicinal plants carry labels with information about traditional healing methods while fruits and vegetables are accompanied by recipes. The museum has inspired other community projects, such as On Pannyé, on kwi (Check out the video). This local initiative encourages the use of basketry and calabash rather than plastic bags or boxes to reduce plastic waste and the community’s ecological footprint.

Belmont Estate, Grenada
CreoleArt, Guadeloupe

Social Sustainability

Caribbean museums are also addressing social sustainability. In this diverse region (with regards to history, ancestry, religion and culture) it is perhaps natural that conflict and tensions can arise between communities. Museums have an important role here to work towards increased tolerance and understanding of each other. To give an example, last year the National Museum Jamaica held an exhibition about Rastafari. Together with multiple Rastafari communities, the exhibition was collaboratively created. The goal was to improve tolerance towards and understanding of the Rastafari who have been marginalized historically in Jamaican society. In Trinidad the local East-Indian community has created the Indian Caribbean Museum. For the community this is an important way to preserve their own history and traditions as well as to teach other people about their values and heritage. Such initiatives can build bridges between people of different backgrounds and counter negative stereotypes.

Do you want to participate in International Museum Day? Browse the websites of museums near you to find activities going on today or maybe even the whole week.

By Csilla Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke

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