Our written heritage
From what we read in the press, and see with our own eyes, the nation’s built heritage is not in a healthy condition, despite valiant efforts by the NGO Citizens for Conservation. Our older historic buildings have been disappearing, or quietly rotting away. (Admittedly, there are some hopeful recent signs of a new official awareness of this situation.)
Not even priceless Cazabon paintings in the National Museum are secure, it seems—paintings which are not only wonderful works of art, but also unique representations of what Trinidad looked like over 150 years ago.
But there is much better news about our written or documentary heritage. And this is critical for understanding the past, because written evidence—documents—have always been the most important kind of source for most historians.
Back in December last year, I gave a shout-out to the National Archives, one of our best-kept secrets, for the work it does, quietly and usually with no publicity, in keeping and safe-guarding the nation’s written records going back to early colonial times.
Today, I want to highlight two recent initiatives by the Heritage Division of NALIS, the body that runs our public library system. First, NALIS recently opened a Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Laboratory in the basement of the National Library building.
This new PAC Lab has state-of-the-art equipment, and specially trained staff, for repairing and conserving books and documents, especially those that are fragile or damaged in some way. This is a highly specialised and time-consuming business, and is especially needed in a tropical country, where heat, humidity, damp and insects reap havoc on paper in a surprisingly short time.
The National Archives has always had its own facility for repairing damaged documents, especially our fragile 19th-century newspapers, but without the kind of custom-made equipment that NALIS now possesses. Providing an excellent example of collaboration for the national good, the National Archives and the Heritage Division of NALIS are working closely together so that the resources of the new PAC Lab, its equipment and trained staff, are shared between the two institutions.
The second new initiative is the project to restore the Old Public Library on Knox Street, Port of Spain, and to locate collections of materials from our heads of State and of Government there.
The first aspect of this project, which was announced publicly at a function in July, is the restoration of the fine, neo-classical building which was opened in 1902 as the then colony’s Public Library, later housed NALIS’s Heritage Library, and has been visibly deteriorating since the move to the new National Library building in 2003.
This building played a crucial part in Trinidad’s 20th-century history. Thousands of people, including schoolchildren, studied there and discovered the joys of books and literature.
And not only literature: Jackie Hinkson has written of how he “discovered” art as a QRC schoolboy at the Public Library, through its art books, and the Louison paintings on its walls. Lectures, public discussions and debates of all kinds were held at the Public Library, including the famous Eric Williams-versus-Dom Basil Matthews debates.
The actual building is one of the most important in the historic Woodford Square district. Under the supervision of historical restoration architect Rudylynn Roberts, the outside of the building will be restored to its original appearance. Research on the building done by Prof Cazabon of Carleton University in Ottawa, along with his architecture students, will guide the restoration work, and Citizens for Conservation will also be involved.
While the facade will be restored but not changed in appearance, the interior will be completely transformed into a state-of-the-art museum and library. This will house collections of papers, objects, photographs and audio-visual materials related to the nation’s governors-general, presidents and prime ministers since Independence.
These collections will be available for study by researchers, and a museum-type exhibition of the objects, photographs and audio-visual materials will be on permanent display. They will complement similar collections held elsewhere, notably the Eric Williams Memorial Collection (which includes a small museum) at the UWI Alma Jordan Library at St Augustine.
The committee which oversees the project is working with several of these past national leaders, or their relatives, to arrange for the eventual donation or deposit of their papers and “memorabilia” (objects which illustrate their lives and work). One collection is already in NALIS’s care: that of George Chambers, the nation’s second Prime Minister, thanks to his family.
Some materials now held in other places may be moved to the new location, such as those related to Noor Hassanali, our second President, which are now at Naparima College. Mr Basdeo Panday, our fifth Prime Minister, it is reported, is ready to hand over a collection now at the Rienzi Complex.
This initiative by NALIS, funded by the Government, is a very positive move for the heritage and history of the nation. A fine building in the heart of the capital city’s historic district will be saved and restored to its original appearance. And we will eventually have a suitable and permanent place to store and display the collections of our national leaders.