Cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

The prob­lem with Guyana - and this ap­plies to many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries - is that the things which re­ally mat­ter in terms of the def­i­ni­tion of a coun­try and its iden­tity over an ex­tended time­frame, have to com­pete for lim­ited fund­ing with what are deemed to be ur­gent needs. Some­times those needs are not that ur­gent, or per­haps are not re­ally even needs at all, but have been de­noted as such by what­ever ad­min­is­tra­tion is in of­fice. Gov­ern­ments here have not yet grasped the fact that con­tribut­ing to­wards build­ing the cul­tural con­tours of a na­tion is crit­i­cally im­por­tant, al­though they will en­cour­age na­tional days or her­itage months and the like, since they are not an un­due bur­den on the bud­get, added to which they in­volve el­e­ments of pub­lic dis­play with which min­is­ters can as­so­ci­ate them­selves. No doubt they see that as their con­tri­bu­tion to re­spect­ing cul­ture.

This is ag­gra­vated by the prob­lem that for the most part, those who tra­di­tion­ally have ruled us are in many cases them­selves sim­ply in­sen­si­tive to cul­tural mat­ters, if they have not ac­tu­ally opened them­selves to al­le­ga­tions of philis­tin­ism (and some of them have). What can def­i­nitely be said is that they would never go on the cam­paign trail promis­ing fund­ing for the Na­tional Ar­chives, the Na­tional Li­brary, the Na­tional Gallery, the Na­tional Mu­seum and the Wal­ter Roth Mu­seum or the Na­tional Trust, for ex­am­ple, in the ex­pec­ta­tion it would be met with mas­sive cheers of ap­proval from their au­di­ence. Most of their at­ten­dees at po­lit­i­cal meet­ings have never been ed­u­cated about the value to the na­tion – both them­selves and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions – that such in­sti­tu­tions and oth­ers not named here, rep­re­sent. Even if they had, it has to be con­ceded that most would be there to hear the cut and thrust of a dif­fer­ent kind of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment.

Cul­ture is an um­brella term for a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties, but con­trary to what our politi­cians seem to be­lieve, it can gen­er­ate fund­ing at all kinds of lev­els. One ob­vi­ous case, of course, is the ma­te­rial her­itage, which ev­ery gov­ern­ment in this coun­try has been cav­a­lier about, and the PPP/C ad­min­is­tra­tion in par­tic­u­lar, pos­i­tively ir­re­spon­si­ble. It was in last week’s Sun­day Times of the UK that the travel sec­tion fea­tured the Guianas, and Ge­orge­town was un­favourably com­pared with Para­maribo in re­la­tion to the sur­vival of its colo­nial build­ings. Guyana had not pre­served them, was the thrust of the com­ment, while Suri­name’s cap­i­tal was al­to­gether quite im­pres­sive in this re­gard.

This, it might be said, is at a time when that coun­try’s ma­te­rial her­itage is not even as im­pos­ing as it used to be, ow­ing to a lack of funds. Nev­er­the­less, it was clear that tourists were be­ing ad­vised that our Dutch-speak­ing neigh­bour was the pre­ferred desti­na­tion. Our politi­cians ap­pear in­ca­pable of learn­ing that vis­i­tors do not want to

see malls. What they want to see are tra­di­tional build­ings, which while they may date from the colo­nial pe­riod, were built by lo­cally born Guyanese, whose skills were grounded in those de­vel­oped dur­ing the Dutch pe­riod by the Winkels of Ber­bice.

But where to­day are the her­itage build­ings of this coun­try – and that in­cludes the early tem­ples and mosques −es­pe­cially the for­mer − hardly any of which now sur­vive? But then, what can one ex­pect when the PNC, among other things, al­lowed what had once been known as the re­gion’s most el­e­gant poor house to dis­in­te­grate, and a PPP/C Min­is­ter of Health stood by for years with­out lift­ing a fin­ger as New Am­s­ter­dam’s re­mark­able old hos­pi­tal was van­dalised and fi­nally crum­bled into noth­ing­ness. And then there was the Chess Hall in Main Street, which his gov­ern­ment after much pres­sure had agreed to re­store, but left it so long that cit­i­zens woke up one morn­ing to find it just a pile of saw­dust ly­ing where it once had stood.

Or let us take the Na­tional Li­brary, which ow­ing to the lack of un­der­stand­ing on the part of Guyana’s first in­de­pen­dent gov­ern­ment, was mis­tak­enly tacked on to the Pub­lic Li­brary. It is an er­ror which has never been put right, and partly (not wholly) for this rea­son, per­haps, it has suf­fered the same fate as the li­brary to which it is har­nessed, i.e. ut­terly in­ad­e­quate fund­ing. That is a sit­u­a­tion which has un­der­gone no change un­der the fi­nan­cial man­age­ment of the present Min­is­ter of Fi­nance, who per­haps thinks books are an out­dated holdover from last cen­tury.

What­ever the com­puter whizz kids among our politi­cians of all po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions might think to the con­trary, a Na­tional Li­brary should col­lect and pre­serve the writ­ten her­itage of a na­tion from the ear­li­est pub­li­ca­tions up to the present day, and that col­lec­tion needs to be man­aged by li­brar­i­ans and/or aca­demics of the high­est cal­i­bre. Most peo­ple in the de­vel­oped world, at least, have heard of the British Li­brary or the Li­brary of Con­gress, and along with the Schom­burgk Col­lec­tion in the New York Pub­lic Li­brary, among oth­ers, these in­sti­tu­tions have col­lec­tions on Guyana which put us to shame. And as for the kind of per­son­nel who headed them, one could take the ex­am­ple of the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who for many years was in charge of Ar­gentina’s Na­tional Li­brary.

There is, how­ever, one pos­si­ble qual­i­fi­ca­tion to the Na­tional Li­brary’s ne­glect over the years, and that is that per­son­nel did go for train­ing in the Nether­lands re­cently (as will be seen below) on the preser­va­tion of paper. Whether, how­ever, that ex­er­cise will re­dound to the ben­e­fit of the Na­tional Col­lec­tion (as op­posed to the Pub­lic Li­brary books) or will not be­cause of bu­reau­cratic or fi­nan­cial rea­sons, is not some­thing which it is pos­si­ble to know yet.

Bri­tain has been for­tu­nate in that it was not in­vaded after 1066, and can still pro­duce the Domes­day Book from 1086, or four copies of the

Magna Carta of 1215, which has such sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance in terms of the story of the evo­lu­tion of democ­racy. The for­mer of these is now found in the UK’s Na­tional Ar­chives, which of course holds re­spon­si­bil­ity for an enor­mous col­lec­tion of pub­lic records.

Un­for­tu­nately, the story of our own ar­chives is a shame­ful one, be­gin­ning in the colo­nial pe­riod of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, when our na­tional records were piled up in the dome of the Pub­lic Build­ings. Ac­cord­ing to the late Vere T Daly, many of them were pe­ri­od­i­cally burnt on the in­struc­tions of J Gra­ham Cruick­shank, who held re­spon­si­bil­ity for them. The doc­u­ments he had col­lected from those records on the ma­roons of this coun­try for a book he was writ­ing, were burnt in the 1945 fire; he had placed them in boxes in the old RACS li­brary which was com­pletely de­stroyed. Sub­se­quent to that, most of the Ber­bice records from the Dutch era were in­un­dated by flood wa­ters in the vault of State House, New Am­s­ter­dam.

There­after, much of the story is no bet­ter, un­til we come to the very re­cent pe­riod that is, when cour­tesy of the Dutch, the lo­cal ar­chives from the Dutch pe­riod were taken to the Nether­lands to be re­stored, and then were also digi­tised. In ad­di­tion, the Dutch ar­ranged train­ing for a num­ber of per­son­nel in the preser­va­tion of paper, in­clud­ing some em­ploy­ees from other in­sti­tu­tions. That is cer­tainly the most pos­i­tive news in the Guyanese his­tor­i­cal field that any­one has heard in a very long time, and truly rep­re­sents a bright spark in an oth­er­wise fairly gloomy cul­tural scene.

And if any­body thinks that from now on, we could start rec­ti­fy­ing some of our ear­lier mis­takes, they should be re­minded that build­ing up a vi­brant lo­cal cul­tural tra­di­tion de­pends in the first in­stance on a copy­right law. If that does not ex­ist, cre­ators in all fields are go­ing to be dis­suaded from pro­duc­ing any­thing here, and there will be no de­vel­op­ment of cul­tural in­dus­tries – which could earn the coun­try money – or the evo­lu­tion of a unique tra­di­tion which would make its in­put into the Guyanese sense of na­tional pride. Ig­no­rance aside, Mr Bhar­rat Jagdeo’s state­ment last year on copy­right, which is pre­sum­ably sup­ported by his party, was noth­ing short of a na­tional dis­grace. It is what we cre­ate, along with the cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions we fash­ion and re­in­force, which give us our sense of na­tion and dis­tinct iden­tity.

What­ever the politi­cians do or don’t do, or what­ever hos­tile ex­changes are in progress about who should or should not be in power, there are all kinds of things which a na­tion has to do to give it­self a pro­file in the long term. What we do now will cre­ate the con­text for what those who come after us will be able to achieve, and nowhere does that ap­ply more than in the case of the cul­tural area, where in­sti­tu­tions should be given the means to flour­ish, and cre­ative spir­its in all fields, not just cul­tural, en­cour­aged and re­spected.

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