Archaeologist and renowned artist George Simon is urging government to reconsider plans to relocate the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, highlighting a number of concerns such a move would entail and pointing out that at the moment, there is no suitable facility for the museum’s collection.
His advice, he told Stabroek News in an interview on Monday, is “to hold it, to just wait and let’s take a careful look at what we have there and look at how we’re gonna house, if its gonna move, let’s know where it’s gonna be moved to. It can’t go to the top of the Post Office building. For what? Who’s gonna go there? What is it gonna be sitting there doing?”
Simon said the museum should be there for research and he pointed out that it has been used by local students as well as international researchers. “It’s a collection no one else has,” he said, while recalling being invited to open an Arawak museum in Jamaica which was “literally…a little hut,” but they were proud of it.
Following an outcry against the proposed move, Minister of Education Dr Rupert Roopnaraine told the National Toshaos Council’s (NTC) conference the week before last that the relocation of the Walter Roth Museum had been placed on hold as consultations will be held with stakeholders, including museum staff and members of the indigenous population before any further decision is taken.
He made the statement almost two weeks after the Ministry of the Presidency had announced plans to have the museum moved from its current location and President David Granger had said that the decision had not been “whimsically” made. Simon disclosed to Stabroek News that Roopnaraine had said at a recent meeting that he would bring up the matter at Cabinet this week.
Recalling hearing of the proposed move, Simon said that he was concerned. He has been associated with the Walter Roth museum since 1985. He recalled some of the work he had done, while pointing out that analysis had not been done on some of the samples as yet.
The archaeologist explained that apart from the museum exhibits, many of the samples are not housed in the main building but in another building at the back. “Those are delicate specimens,” he said. “If you were to move it and the labels were lost, then you might just throw it outside in the garbage.”
He was very concerned and alarmed that the authorities wanted to move the museum without really thinking it through. “The other alarming thing was that all this collection was gonna be placed at the back of the [National] museum, to the western side… I did some work there, I painted the walls of the museum, I know it and I couldn’t imagine that all this stuff is gonna be stuck…it would have simply been placed in boxes or something and just left because you couldn’t put any display there at the back. You didn’t have the space,” he added.
Simon recalled that when he arrived two Mondays ago, he met with museum officials and junior Minister of Education Nicolette Henry to discuss the concerns. “Principally, we met with the minister to say…how delicate this thing is and it’s not advisable to move without first considering the artifacts, some of these things are very old,” he said.
“If you move a headdress that is in an airtight case, if you take it out the case, very quickly it tends to disintegrate in the open. If you’re gonna move that collection into another [place], it must be a better facility with proper air conditioning, lighting and so on,” he asserted. “It’s not just moving, it’s the environment in which you’re gonna move it into.”
He also noted that the space factor as well as location concerns were highlighted.
Further, the archaeologist said Guyana does not have the experts to properly undertake the move.
He noted that if he dug something out of the ground or took something out of the river, it would be affected by the atmosphere outside and disintegrate. He said this could very well be the result of the Walter Roth collection with the change in environment. Another concern is the actual moving of the collection. “Are we gonna put them in boxes, are we gonna put them in bags, are we concerned that labels gonna be destroyed or labels gonna fall because its paper…it’s a very delicate, delicate undertaking,” he said.
He noted that following the meeting with Henry, they were told that the move was going to be carefully done and experts would advise how to do it. “If you’re gonna move this collection, you must move it into a better environment. You’re not gonna move it into another environment where it’s gonna hamper the whole collection, damage and destroy the whole collection,” Simon declared.
“That’s very, very crucial. It’s gonna have to be in a better, better, much more superior place,” he said.
Following Roopnaraine’s announcement of the pause for consultations, Simon observed they were relieved. Subsequently, he said the minister told them that he would bring up the matter at Cabinet that week.
Simon said they hope the President can visit the museum to see what is there. All previous presidents have visited and looked at the collection and it would be a good occasion for Granger to visit, he said.
He noted that they also wanted to meet Minister of Indigenous People’s Affairs Sydney Allicock and junior Minister Valerie Garrido-Lowe and voice their concerns and ask them to try to halt the move or keep it on hold until such time as they really know where the collection is going to be moved if it is going to be moved at all. Simon said at the moment, there is no suitable facility for the collection. He highlighted concerns such as lighting noting that if a certain amount of light hits the feather on an artifact, the feathers would fade. It’s not a simple thing controlling light, heat, pressure, and so on, he said; “There has to be a building that really is designed suitable for the collection, it is very delicate, it is very, very fragile.”
For now, Simon stated the hold on the move is indefinite. He said that he didn’t know that anyone is trying to find a location now and if it is really necessary to move the collection, they would hope to talk to the president about putting up a special building.
The location now is a great location and used by international researchers and local students, Simon said. “It’s an ideal place to be, it’s a beautiful setting. Of course, if could be upgraded and facilities made… [to] protect some of these artifacts in a much more friendly atmosphere with lighting and so, then it’s an ideal situation,” he continued.
Simon noted that a colleague from the University of Florida said he had dealt with a similar situation in Brazil and is willing to come and advise here because moving artifacts is a very special undertaking. “You move it, you have to put it in a better facility and to put in a super facility is very expensive,” he noted.
“It takes time, it takes planning, it takes money, it’s not an easy undertaking, it’s not simply to take the collection, move it and drop it somewhere. It’s nothing like that at all,” he said.