It has been a tremendously long time coming but the labour of love that has been the restoration of the National Museum is finally complete and the Museum can now fully open its doors for business once again. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull takes a tour with Museum Chairman Harris McCoy III to appreciate all that this unique piece of Caymanian heritage now has to offer. First in a two-part series.
The Cayman Islands National Museum majestically located on the George Town harbour front suffered tremendous damage during Hurricane Ivan, the Category 4/5 storm which ripped through Grand Cayman in September 2004.
“One-third of the Museum’s artifacts were damaged in the hurricane and the Museum’s structure was extensively damaged,” says McCoy.
The next couple of years were spent deciding on the best course of action to salvage and restore Cayman’s most treasured and historically significant of buildings.
“We did not want to rush the process,” McCoy explains. “It was extremely important for us to look at all the options and get it right, even if it was to take us a good few years in the process.”
The Museum’s board of directors decided to gut the building down to its bare frame and to restore it sympathetically, preserving as far as possible the original structure and raw materials, of Cayman’s court house, built in the 19th Century.
The Museum was eventually able to re-open its gift shop in the complex at the beginning of this year, as an enticement to visitors until the actual exhibition rooms themselves opened in September. Indeed, the gift shop had been operating off site, reopening just a few months after the hurricane.
A short journey in time
Visitors to the Museum will immediately be struck by the seamless interaction of modern technology with the Museum’s ancient artifacts. Indeed, this melding is a testament to the Board’s emphasis on creating a thoroughly state-of-the-art Museum that entertains as well as educates visitors as they journey through time.
In order to fully appreciate the history of the Museum, as well as of the Cayman Islands itself, visitors are encouraged at the start of their tour to view a ten minute film that gives an excellent background to the Islands, and is shown almost continuously throughout the day. The sound-proofed mini movie theatre is a sophisticated blend of audio visual technology, and the video offers to those who may not have visited the islands before an excellent snapshot of Cayman’s rich and unique cultural and natural history.
“The video in itself took a tremendous amount of effort,” McCoy admits. “It took around eight to nine months to complete, and was shot solely in Cayman. Around twenty people were involved in its making, and hats off to the Tallahassee-based Wilderness Graphics for doing such a great job.”
The Old Gaol
While excavating the Museum site during the reconstruction process, the section of the building which used to be the jail (known as the Old Gaol) suddenly revealed an exciting surprise for the board of directors.
Graffiti written by prisoners from as long as a hundred years ago was discovered on the walls, which made the site of “universal importance,” according to Historical Preservation Architect Patricia Green, who was recruited as consultant preservation architect to this aspect of the restoration.
Ms Green believed that ongoing conservation and research work had given the project its “credibility internationally” as the site has been scheduled to be examined as a World Heritage Site.
Two research and conservation consultants, Dr Isabel Rigol, who is researching the historic importance of the building, and Dr Elisa Serrano, who is working on the conservation and presentation of the Old Gaol graffiti, are currently continuing their work.
As a consequence, the Old Gaol section of the Museum is currently only able to be viewed via a doorway as the structure needs to be carefully preserved.
McCoy says: “Once we have stabalised this part of the Museum we hope to be able to allow our visitors greater access for viewing.”
The Cultural History Gallery
The remainder of the Museum is split into differently themed galleries, all focusing on displaying their various artifacts and exhibitions using technology to full advantage in informing and updating viewers in an interactive and lively manner.
The Cultural History Gallery, set in the very heart of the Old Courthouse building, initially takes visitors straight to the essence of the Caymanian soul with a fisherman in his catboat delivering tales of the sea via an animatronics model. Vignettes of Caymanian life circa the 1950s and before dot the Gallery, complete with listening sticks and videos of stories and information, and include the Caymanian home of the period as well as turtling and fishing vignettes, and those of the church.
A timeline charts the development of the Islands through the years and is a must-see for students and visitors, alike, who want to get a sense of how Cayman has evolved over the years.
Women of the Cayman Islands is an especially important vignette and will be a revolving exhibition celebrating the high-achieving women of the Islands. The exhibit currently celebrates, among others, Evelyn Wood (the first woman nominated to serve in the Legislative Assembly in 1962); Sybil McLaughlin (the first female Speaker of the House, in 1990, and National Hero, 1996); Jenny Manderson (the first female Principal Secretary, in 1987); Adrianne Webb (the first female barrister, in 1975); Julianna O’Connor-Connolly (the first female MLA, in 1997, and also the first female Minister of Government); Jennifer Dilbert (the first female Inspector of Financial Services, in 1993, and UK representative, in 2000.
‘Men of the Sea’ is an important account of sea life, with moving images and stories of the sea that will almost have visitors inhaling the briny air as they listen.
Moving into the back of this Gallery and you are faced with a detailed replica of the Old Courthouse, modelling its early 20th century ambiance, complete with the actual desk that stood in the same spot all those years ago. Visitors can choose to watch a short video of three famous court cases: The Trial of Long Celia, The Court Martial following the Wreck of the Ten Sail and the Turtler’s Case between the Cayman Islands and the Nicaraguan governments involving the rights of fishermen.
“Again, each movie took a huge amount of effort to put together,” McCoy concedes.
Readers will get an insight into the rest of the National Museum in upcoming editions of The Journal.