The roof is on fire

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! We don’t have no water, let the whole thing burn!

“Tear Down De Roof” Jam Band, 2001

An astonishing fact: each and every day of the year, the population of St. Thomas swells by 33%. The source of this inflation? As you might have guessed, the behemoth floating condos / food factories / casinos / health clubs (a.k.a. cruise ships) that spew some 20,000 tourists daily onto the crowded streets of the tiny port town of Charlotte Amalie! During the last week in April, they poured off the Princess Sun and sister ships in continuous waves to make a quick dash for diamonds, Rolex watches, and cut-rate liquor–and were aghast to learn that stores in St. Thomas had closed for Carnival. A few of the gutsy ones, their T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the last docking, pockets bulging with bills, and faces protected by 32-SPF sunscreen armor, made their way down Main Street; there, hundreds of revelers sporting “We Be Jammin’, Carnival 2001” T-shirts chanted the beloved lyrics of the Jam Band hit and danced to its rhythms, amplified through the mega sound-systems of parade trucks. After jostling with the local crowds for a peek at a few of the many parade groups–The Kingdom of Zamunda, Court of O-Warri, or the Sts. Peter and Paul “Angels of Steel” Steel Band Orchestra–our seaworthy friends made their way back to the Princess, content that they’d seen it all.

At the same time, on the bluffs overlooking Frenchman Bay and cooled by the hotel’s corpulent air-conditioning system (never mind the glorious trade winds just an open window away), we “pros” at Museum Day spent the day pondering … what else, but cultural tourism–that dicey business of packaging and marketing “culture” for tourists. We sufficiently distanced ourselves from the “real tourists,” the ones from the cruise ships who will in the end pour dollars into the very projects of our discussions. But all smugness aside, who’s fooling whom? We’re the tourists about whom we plan, participants in a process that simultaneously rebuilds and destroys our communities. Sadly, while many cultural tourism efforts have provided some economic opportunities to local populations, most of their profits have gone elsewhere. And even more important, local communities have had no say in the nature of tourism projects, the messages presented, or the day-to-day impact of hordes of visitors.

The Museum and Outreach Days that preceded the Triennial proper offered an exciting opportunity for mainland and host colleagues to meet on issues of mutual interest. In the midst of Carnival, the topic of cultural tourism commanded our attention and elicited profound questions about communities’ identities, shared and conflicting visions, and benefit/loss paradigms. Discussions of teaching strategies and K-12 resources followed on Outreach Day, attended by some fifty Virgin Islands teachers. Both days were generously funded in part by the Virgin Islands Humanities Council.

Museum Day organizer Christine Mullen Kreamer opened the session with questions to frame the ensuing dialogue: How can communities reshape their identities through collaborative tourism projects? What must they do to preserve their voice in the interpretive messages and narratives presented to tourists? How do they navigate the planning and implementation processes when tourist dollars seem to speak louder than local legacies and values? How do communities redefine cultural legacies that have been usurped by colonialism and racism?

Myron Jackson, who administers the three Virgin Island museums–Fort Christian, Fort Frederick, and Old Plantation–raised issues common to many of our institutions. For example, we need to find ways to broaden our collection bases so they are more inclusive of our diverse communities and histories, and to deal with painful and difficult parts of our histories. One audience member pondered the functions of libraries, museums, and schools; what were they if not to “reshape and re-create a people still dealing with enslavement domination”? In the oversight of three museums that had come into being because of the holocaust of slavery, Jackson’s challenge was to turn places of horror into places of reconciliation. Working in a museum whose collections are primarily associated with the colonialists, Jackson described efforts to reclaim the lost histories of the enslaved Africans through community-based research and institutional partnerships and by reshaping the interpretive messages of the sites.

A nascent cultural-tourism project in Suriname was the focus of presentations by Polly Nooter Roberts and Allen Roberts. Efforts that open areas heretofore closed to tourists are often the most important–suggesting a framework for those that follow. Returning to Kreamer’s initial question–How do communities retain their voice in international collaborations?–the Robertses argued for tourism planning that foregrounds indigenous histories and embraces local concerns. Polly urged attendees to turn the tables on interpretation and consider a more inclusive message and history–an exhibition on Dutch apothecaries, for example, surely would be enhanced by an companion presentation on local healing systems.

Staff of the Virgin Islands Landmark Society–Priscilla Walkins, Nancy Fisk, and Nancy Finegood–spoke of their efforts to develop programs and institutions that appealed to both cruise-ship visitors and local residents. How can an institution serve such diverse audiences, when the first will surely visit only once and the latter enticed to visit repeatedly? This very question haunts some of our larger sister institutions struggling with attracting tourist constituencies while also maintaining and building long-term relationships with resident communities.

Museum Day included a presentation on the North Carolina Museum of Art’s exciting opportunities for teacher training that incorporate international travel. This information could well have been folded into Outreach Day, a new ACASA initiative of the Triennial geared for teachers of the host venue. Virgin Islands classroom teachers and conference presenters wrestled with the difficult challenges of developing curricula that would acknowledge students’ and communities’ diverse identities and histories. We began the day with Willard John’s Mocko Jumbie informance, an education-entertainment strategy that contextualizes performance within an educational setting. Veronica Jenke, Outreach Day organizer (and what a fine job she did!), and I looked at museum resources for teachers, encouraging them to transform the ideas, issues, and interpretive strategies of exhibitions into classroom curricula and extending those ideas (in brainstorming sessions that day) to topics and concerns of direct relevance to students. In suggesting that teachers incorporate into their instruction writing genres that reflect a diversity of traditions, I recited, to their delight (or amusement?), an oriki-style praise poem I had composed in honor of their great efforts. How can we involve our students as cultural researchers, transforming their (and our) understanding of events like Carnival, funerals, and independence-day celebrations into studies that involve entire communities?

And finally, Chris Roy managed to overcome technobabble in demonstrating and discussing the University of Iowa’s CD program on African art, Art and Life in Africa. The production of such a program requires that we make very careful choices about accessibility in a fast-paced, ever changing technological environment. How will we assess our communities of users in terms of their respective needs, interests, capabilities, and skills? For whom are our educational resources intended, how will they be used, and how will we evaluate the products and services we offer?

Carnival became the site for our questions to converge. Steel bands vied with each other in sound and performance, young beauty queens smiled between stiff-legged Mocko Jumbie ensembles, and Budweiser-sponsored calypso bands reminded us to choose the right beer. Tourists were there, but not many at the heart of the celebration. Could it be that the St. Thomas community had reinvented Carnival for itself while also acknowledging an event that had tourist appeal? Like the Jam Band lyrics blasted throughout the parade route, cultural tourism and all it implies can be–and should be–about the determination of communities to redefine narratives, reclaim histories, and create more equitable partnerships. The roles that we–as artists, scholars, educators, community leaders, and culture brokers–can play in the development of cultural tourism have yet to be defined, but it is incumbent on us to roll up our sleeves, apply the sunscreen, and add our voices and energies to the hard but exciting work ahead.