Places that Matter: Whim Museum on St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Projects, TechMuse Blog, The Museum Learning Experience, World Connections | 0 comments

Places that Matter: Whim Museum on St. Croix, Virgin Islands

This week I’ve been doing community storytelling popup exhibits with Whim Museum during their annual “Come Home to St. Croix” celebration of culture, history, and family.  Special programs included events nearly every night — an exhibit opening, poetry readings, live music and more. Culturally rich stuff — and quite a transformation from what was once a sugar plantation.

In the early 18th century, Estate Whim was part of the trade triangle: sugar, rum, and slavery. Many of the original buildings and machinery from the plantation establish a framework for the museum. But now the museum has emerged beyond the buildings as a center for Crucian (St. Croix) culture, composed largely of descendents of the enslaved Africans. So the museum isn’t primarily about slavery — it’s about preserving the island culture of the people who lived and worked there. And it does this especially through events and programs.

Some of the programs and events include:

  • A new exhibit including labels in Crucian dialect on the lively topic of horses and horse racing and the people who care for horses (“Hass, Hassman, & Hass Racing”)
  • Ancestry Discovery workshops, especially relevant on an island tracing ancestry back through slave trade, in a community where people are often discovering new connections to people around them
  • A focus on “Places that Matter”, including a connection to the leatherback sea turtle watch at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.
  • A summer camp for kids focusing on Crucian culture and identity

The power of these events especially struck me during the poetry reading evening. The event was in the Great Hall, formerly the center of plantation life…But now, the sounds coming from the hall were poetry, and the poets traced their ancestors back to those enslaved to work on the island. Some powerful transformation has been at work in this museum…

In the wider museum community, there’s a debate about the real impact of museums (“Museums…so what?”) articulated by Rob Stein’s thoughtful essay.  And I noted last year at AASLH how energizing it was to have the Sites of Conscience organization meet in conjunction with AASLH. It’s all part of the larger constellation of discussions around the value of museums to local community…

In my mind, especially after the example this week, it isn’t primarily the buildings or even the collections or exhibits that make a museum matter. Those are part of the (necessary) foundation. But it’s the programs and events on top of those that serve the local community and make a museum a place that matters.

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