The guardian of Bermuda’s heritage
By the mid-1970s, neglect, time and the elements had inflicted more punishment on the massive ramparts and buildings of the Keep at Bermuda’s old Royal Naval Dockyard than any of the potential military enemies it had been built to guard against.
The Keep forms the spearpoint-tip at the westernmost end of Ireland Island. A ten-acre expanse of fortifications, bastions and gun emplacements, it had been constructed to protect what had been the principal Royal Navy base in the Atlantic from the post-American Revolutionary War period until the Cold War against attacks by either land or sea.
This once-formidable citadel had been mothballed along with most of the rest of Dockyard in the late 1950s when the British reduced their naval presence here to a token force.
The Keep quickly fell into disrepair.
The historically significant Commissioner’s House, for instance — The Keep’s physical and visual centrepiece and the first building in the world built around a prefabricated cast-iron frame — was literally rusting away.
Once the scene of glittering receptions and sumptuous dinners, this grandest of 19th-century grand Bermuda houses was completely open to the elements.
Torrents of water cascaded down its sweeping main staircase every time it rained and the wind gusted through its shattered windows.
Slowly but inexorably the one-time home of Dockyard’s resident commissioner — the British Admiralty representative in Bermuda — came to be viewed as more of a hazard than a historic landmark.
And for many years the looming hilltop hulk of Commissioner’s House was the most prominent and conspicuous symbol of the sprawling dilapidation which so characterised the old Royal Navy lands at the West End by the 1970s.
Certainly by the time what was originally called the Bermuda Maritime Museum was established as an adjunct of the preservationist Bermuda National Trust in 1974, it seemed wishful thinking and good intentions had entirely trumped reason and budgetary considerations.
For the museum was established with the ridiculously ambitious goal of salvaging the derelict Keep and transforming it into a heritage attraction centred around the island’s long history with the sea.
The property was in such an advanced state of disrepair that only the passion, vision and drive of such founding figures as Jack Arnell and Andrew Trimingham, along with copious amounts of volunteers’ elbow-grease, got it through its early years when its exhibit space and offices were confined to a single rehabilitated building on the Keep grounds.
Having survived its shakedown trials, the museum’s mandate was formalised in 1978 by a Parliamentary Act charging it with promoting, collecting, preserving, researching and exhibiting Bermuda’s maritime history as well as restoring the buildings of the Keep.
And so the museum embarked on a protracted new period of expansion, transition and accomplishment: it is a period which began with the hiring of the institution’s first professional executive director Edward Harris in 1980 — and which is only ending now, some 37 years later, with his retirement next month.
An extravagantly gifted young Bermudian archaeologist, when he took up his position at the museum Dr Harris was already internationally known for developing the namesake “Harris Matrix” in 1973 — what has since become the standard tool in his field for charting archaeological layers and buried structures on excavation sites.
He was almost certainly assured of a relentlessly upward career trajectory in academia if he had left the island.
But the lure of his native Bermuda proved to be irresistible, as did an unparalleled opportunity to create something new and audaciously ambitious by attempting to translate the dreams of the museum’s founding lights into tangible reality.
And this is exactly what he did.
Taking the earlier visions of museum’s founders and adding more than a few ideas and tweaks of his own, Edward Harris proved himself to be as adept at museum management and curatorship, architectural conservation and restoration, business development, cultural tourism, advocacy on behalf of heritage-related issues, fundraising and marketing as he was at archaeological excavation work and pure research.
Under his stewardship the museum substantially broadened its remit to cover all aspects of Bermuda’s history, not just those associated with our maritime heritage.
The institution’s name was changed to the National Museum of Bermuda in 2013 to better reflect this wider focus, one which mirrored Dr Harris’s own all-embracing definition of the island’s cultural legacy.
He is a man, after all, who can speak just as learnedly — and excitedly — on the island’s moped-obsessed youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s, a period when he was known as “Sprocket” Harris and sped around on a gooseneck-handled Zundapp, as he can on, say, the British fleet which assembled in Bermuda during the War of 1812 to put Washington DC to the torch.
And he is also nothing if not a relentless evangeliser and populariser of Bermudian history, a man who loves to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject by way of newspaper columns, TV appearances, books and, increasingly, social media.
For like all good archaeologists and historians, Dr Harris takes the view that an understanding of our past is not simply a sterile intellectual undertaking but a path to better understanding our own times and ourselves.
Not only did the scope of the museum’s mission and holdings expand under Dr Harris’s leadership, so did its physical size and range of activities.
The National Museum extends over 16 acres now, incorporating the old Casemates Barracks and adjacent buildings and fortifications in 2009, and the institution is involved in a head-spinning variety of projects ranging from publishing heritage-themed books and scholarly journals to collaborating with leading international universities by hosting land and underwater archaeology field schools in Bermuda.
Its core mission, of course, remains unchanged: preserving and celebrating Bermuda’s past for future generations by creating exhibits and programmes which spark curiosity and a sense of engagement and pride in that rich history.
An increasing number of the 75,000 artefacts in the museum’s permanent collection are now displayed in various galleries covering more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Encompassing everything from slavery to shipwrecks, from the arrival of the first Portuguese migrants in the 1840s to Bermuda’s role in the two great 20th-century world wars, the museum’s standing exhibits are equal parts time-capsules and time machines: they touch visitors with an immediacy, power and poignancy which belies the age and sometimes remote origins of the pieces on display.
And increasingly in recent years the museum has been working diligently to ensure there will always be reminders of the past still left to celebrate in Bermuda.
Lobbying both local decision-makers as well as global bodies into taking the type of actions required to better safeguard our cultural heritage, Dr Harris has advocated for stronger Bermuda laws to conserve both artefacts and historic sites while also winning protected status for some unique features of the collective Bermudian birthright under international treaties.
Most notably in this regard the museum was in the forefront of the drive which assured prestigious World Heritage Site status for the town of St George and its neighbouring fortifications from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2000.
And in 2001, Bermuda’s Historic Wrecks Act, intended to protect our underwater heritage from the casual depredations of treasure hunters, became an international model of its kind, arguably the strongest such national legislation in the world.
Dr Harris’s advocacy work has sometimes brought him into conflict with adversaries who have included sit-on-their-hands bureaucrats, developers and even, on one memorable occasion, an internationally renowned bestselling writer.
Jaws author Peter Benchley, a longtime friend of Bermuda, was also an intimate of the island’s treasure-hunting fraternity. Heirs to Bermuda’s long freebooting tradition and, consequently, congenitally averse to any proposed oversight of their pastime, these divers drew Benchley into their feud with Dr Harris over his then-nascent efforts to preserve our shipwreck heritage by way of new regulations.
As a result Benchley caricatured Dr Harris as Bermuda’s officious cultural overseer, Dr Liam St John, in his 1991 bestseller Beast.
In the novel, the stand-in for Dr Harris ends up as bait for the monster of the title, a giant squid terrorising Bermuda’s waters. Dr Harris was more amused than irritated by his thinly camouflaged appearance in the maritime thriller, saying he had ordered calamari so many times at restaurants there was something altogether fitting about him being served up as an hors d’oeuvre for a squid.
Dr Harris’s bemused reaction to the somewhat sophomoric cartoon Benchley painted of him was typical of his approach to those he found himself on opposing sides with on matters of cultural heritage preservation.
He brought focus, intelligence and unflagging energy to bear on these issues, never personal enmity.
Frankly, he sometimes saw his role as acting as that intrusive grain of sand which could occasionally irritate Bermuda and international officialdom into making pearls.
So he never hesitated or apologised for buttonholing, petitioning and sometimes outright cajoling politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups and other actors in the field to do what he believed was necessary to protect and preserve our heritage. Nor did he ever take personal affront to the pushback his advocacy — persistent but never overly zealous — at times provoked.
For Dr Harris the effort was always worth the ultimate reward — a reward which now takes many forms: a restored and renewed Keep, the nucleus around which the West End Development Corporation’s later revitalisation of the rest of Dockyard grew; a world-class museum and research facility; tightened heritage legislation along with international recognition and protection for important aspects of our cultural patrimony; and, perhaps most satisfying of all for him, a Bermudian people who are now better acquainted with their history and heritage than at any other time in the 400-odd years since this island was permanently settled.
And if you were to seek his monument once he steps down as executive director in November, look no farther than Commissioner’s House.
The once decaying ruin, fully rehabilitated since 2000, is now the headquarters of the Bermuda National Museum.
The restoration of this genuinely iconic structure became something of a personal obsession for Dr Harris and he spent more than 20 years raising funds, consulting with an array of specialists versed in repairing historic buildings and mobilising public support to realise his seemingly impossible dream.
Today, Commissioner’s House is the most prominent and conspicuous symbol of the museum’s growth and development under the leadership of Dr Harris. And there are many who would argue there could be no more appropriate memorial for, in metaphorical terms at least, Dr Harris shares with that building a core of cast iron.