Currents Of The Caribbean - London Museums Tap Into Heritage

By Carolyn Bandel | 22 April 2005
Shows a photo of a smiling man in a cap standing next to a green artwork.

Caribbean heritage is taking centre stage in four London museums. Picture courtesy the Horniman Museum.

24 Hour Museum/Renaissance Student Journalist, Carolyn Bandel, found herself swept away on a tropical tide when she visited the Caribbean Currents exhibition at Wandsworth Museum. The show is moving on from there on April 24, to be taken up at Newham Museum.

Never mind having to wait for summer: as part of the Renaissance London project Caribbean Currents, the capital has gone into tropical mode already.

Beginning its work last year in February, Caribbean Currents has teamed up with four London museums to engage local Caribbean communities in exploring what their heritage means to them.

Shows a brightly painted artwork featuring faces, leaves and writing

The project encourages creative exploration of Caribbean identity. Picture courtesy the Horniman Museum.

Merle Nestfield, a project worker of the Horniman Museum and one of the coordinators of Caribbean Currents, explains: “There is a lack of knowledge of what museums have to offer, especially within Caribbean culture: only one out of five museum visitors is of Caribbean descent.”

The project, funded by the London Museums Hub (which spearheads Renaissance) , sets out to stimulate a creative exploration of Caribbean identity both in the past and in members’ own present experience. “It is a very innovative project that is challenging people’s perceptions of what a museum should be or should do and it is keeping their indigenous heritage alive,” says Merle.

The fruits of one such collaboration can now be viewed at south London’s Wandsworth Museum until April 24. (But don’t worry if you’re not that quick off the mark – Caribbean Currents will carry on down the road in Newham Museum.)

Shows a photo of a smiling woman touching a hanging mobile made of bright feathers.

Another happy customer. Picture courtesy the Horniman Museum.

Inspired by pre-Columbian objects lent by the Horniman Museum, members and staff of the Servol Community Trust, which supports elderly people of Caribbean descent in Battersea, created the works of art on show.

“This was something really fresh, a new experience for them,” explains Patricia Astley Cooper, curator of the Wandsworth Museum, “but also the museum has benefited as it has strengthened links with a group in the community.”

From May 17 until June 30 artefacts created in workshop sessions with a youth group from east London will go on display at Newham Museum. Earlier exhibitions were in the Cuming Museum, Southwark and the Grange Museum in Brent.

Together with several artists from the art organisation Cloth of Gold, textiles, paint, photography and several more media were used to produce works of art, following different themes such as spiritual protection, gifts from nature and adornment – all inspired by objects from the Caribbean collection of the Horniman Museum.

Shows a photo of two men with feather mobiles.

Only one in five museum visitors is of Caribbean descent. Picture courtesy the Horniman Museum.

“A lot of the people in the groups didn’t understand that the Caribbean had objects stored away somewhere in museums,” says Merle Nestfield. “Therefore, firstly we did a presentation of the objects, telling them about the history of the objects and each week we would concentrate on a different object.”

This did not only provide inspiration but encouraged dialogue as well: “By taking things that are culturally and historically related to them, people started telling about their own history in the workshops,” he continued.

To coincide with the launch of Black History Month in October, the Horniman Museum will put several artefacts from the four museums on display as part of Amazon to Caribbean: early peoples of the rainforest, a major exhibition revealing the cultural links between early Amazonian cultures and flourishing of Caribbean art and identity.

Shows a photo of a man in a cap standing before a wall covered in photos from workshops.

October is Black History Month. Picture courtesy the Horniman Museum.

For Merle it has been “a fantastic adventure”. A lot of things have been woken up, links between local communities and museums have been formed, people have been encouraged to visit museums and have discussions about the nature of their identity. “I just hope that we can keep this door open that we have opened.”

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Carolyn Bandel is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the London region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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