Bahamian contingent at MAC 2016

The Museums Association of the Caribbean convenes in the Cayman Islands

Sunken ships, fossilised bones, film screenings, and apps for paintings: what is the common denominator? Museums. Preservation and interpretation of our cultural artefacts offer keys to understanding ourselves as Caribbean subjects, and The Museum Association of The Caribbean (MAC) is an indicator in encouraging these conversations and practices.

The association convened for the 27th annual conference; this time hosted in the Cayman Islands and the sleek new home of the National Art Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI). Archaeologists, Curators – of both the humanities and scientific variety and other museum professionals gathered to discuss the particular role of the museum, all in keeping with this year’s theme: “The Essential Museum – Redefining the role of the cultural and heritage sector for 21st-century audiences”. The NAGB sent two delegates, director Amanda Coulson, and assistant curator Natalie Willis to represent part of the Bahamian contingent and to speak to strides being made by the gallery to connect with new audiences today.

The three-day schedule, running from October 9th – 12th, was intense, to say the least, but the pacing made for an experience that left no room for lack of focus.With over 80 attendees, and presenters from across the Caribbean, USA, Canada and the UK, the diversity of those participating created a palpable buzz of excitement and intrigue in itself – and the diversity didn’t just have to do with nationality, as there was a wide range of ages present.

From academics to interns, to students, to cultural consultants and curators, there was such a wide array of points of view and experiences that no matter the level of experience there was something for everyone to engage with. Founded nearly 30 years ago, MAC has been steadily building steam, with this latest conference showing the increase in the organisation’s momentum and potential.

The association provides a much-needed platform for fostering a sense of community and connectedness for museums in the Caribbean, to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas across the cultural institutions of the region. It is far too easy for museum workers here to feel that we work in silos, in isolation and that the struggles we face are unique to us alone.

The MAC 2016 Annual Conference provides a sense of solidarity and camaraderie, and despite the high levels of energy and focus required of the conference, with a backdrop as beautiful as the NGCI along with the buzzing levels of enthusiasm from those involved – fatigue was never going to be an option.

In addition to the focused, sensitive keynote panels featuring three directors of national galleries across the region – Dr. Veerle Poupeye, Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, our own Amanda Coulson, Director of the NAGB and Natalie Urquhart, Director of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands – attendees also had the privilege of paying witness to presentations by delegates from the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Curator Joanne Hyppolite, Supervisory Museum Curator of Collections Michele Gates Moresi, and Museum Specialist Mary Elliott provided a moving discussion on the importance of representing all facets of African American society (including those of other races) in the story the museum would tell. They spoke about an applied holistic approach to the collections of the NMAAHC – a project nearly 100 years in the making from the time the idea was first planted, to the last 13 years when things got set into real, tangible motion.

It was a profound moment for Willis. “The inclusivity and dedication of these women to telling the full story of African American history is inspiring and something close to my heart and all of us as people of the Caribbean. Our history is so varied across so many different walks of life that it’s important to tell all these stories so that everyone can ‘find themselves’ within these spaces as the team at NMAAHC show us. They do it with such a positive outlook – they don’t find telling these stories a difficult and emotionally draining task, they use it as a way to empower themselves and the people whose stories they bring to the light.”

The experience was invaluable for emerging museum professionals, and the dialogue started amongst the contingent feels hopeful for the future of institutions across the region. Coulson shares, “These conferences are so important in making our established museum professionals feel supported and invigorate their spaces with new shared ideas, and for bringing emerging young men and women into the fold, creating links amongst themselves for the future of our institutions.

MAC provides a forum for addressing the reach and possibilities of these cultural entities for 21st-century audiences and how to engage in new and refreshing ways, how we can play a key role in education, social change, and making all communities in all their diversity feel included.” MAC 2017 will be held in Miami, Florida, supported by the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture and the Association of African-American Museums (AAAM). Our shared history as a region with the USA provides an apt underpinning for this location and, if this year’s conference is anything to go by, things can only get better.