Joy asks for help in preserving Bermuda's Black heritage
It wasn’t Joy Wilson-Tucker's idea to establish the Bermudian Heritage Museum or to place it in St George's but somehow, all the responsibility of running it has fallen on her shoulders.
At 79, she cannot carry the load much longer. Getting to 29 Water Street isn’t always easy for the Pembroke resident, who doesn’t drive.
For various periods over the past several years she has been its curator, cleaner and accountant. She gives tours and also maintains the museum's website, which she herself created.
"I think a lot of Bermudians are under the impression that that museum belongs to me and it was my idea. I have kept it going but it wasn’t my initial idea," she said.
"The problem that we're having, it seems like most of Bermuda – and especially the Bermudians of colour – it seems like they either don’t appreciate the fact that the museum is there or they just can't be bothered to come and pay a visit."
The Bermudian Heritage Museum pays $1,300 in rent to the Bermuda National Trust. There are also the bills for the electricity and telephone, and the security camera that monitors the two-storey building.
The money goes out of its bank account each month no matter how few people pay the $5 admission to what Mrs Wilson-Tucker describes as "a national treasure".
The slow stream of visitors has made the charity even more dependent on its government grant which has recently had "some hiccups".
"This year we are still waiting to see if we're going to get anything and if so when," Mrs Wilson-Tucker said. "Before the pandemic we did get persons from overseas that would come in to visit and we did get some school students that would come down during Black History Month, Heritage Month, some of them came down to do a thesis and things like that at the request of the schools. So it's serving a purpose.
"But at the moment we're going on a wing and a prayer. Unless things really turn around, we're looking at another six months [before I have to close it down]. It all depends on how finances hold out for the rent. But unless a miracle happens, six months is what we're looking at."
The Bermudian Heritage Museum was the brainchild of the late Clarence Ross Smith, a long-time alderman with the Corporation of St George whose "heart was set on opening a museum where the history of Black Bermudians could be highlighted and preserved".
Together with the late Leon "Jimmy" Williams he brought together a group of people and formed an association that included the late educator Dame Marjorie Bean, the late author and historian Cyril Packwood and the late St George's mayor, Lois Perinchief, and opened the doors in 1998.
"[Mr Smith] wanted this museum set up in the now defunct Samaritans Lodge and he wanted that particularly I think, because his mother was a member of that order and she was the last secretary that served there," Mrs Wilson-Tucker said.
"Several of the founding members have passed but the ones we do have don’t even take the interest to pick up the phone and call and say, 'How are you doing? Do you need any assistance?' We struggle with volunteers – all of that wasn’t the case when we first opened.
"When I talk to a lot of people of colour they say we can't close it down. People in St George like Dame Jennifer Smith, Kim Swan and Renee Ming – when I speak to people like that they turn around and say we can't afford to close it down because that’s the only museum we have on Black history."
The museum is split into six rooms. Mrs Wilson-Tucker and Mr Smith "took money out of their own pockets" for refurbishments which included "putting in stairs and fixing ceilings and whatever was needed in order to get that museum up and running".
Visitors start their education with the early history of schools, churches, farms and transportation.
"We also cover the trades, we cover some aspects of the sports, we cover the [Theatre Boycott]; we also have a slave room where we talk about Mary Prince and Sally Bassett and the role that was played by slaves here on the island," said Mrs Wilson-Tucker, the museum president and exhibits director.
Musicians are celebrated as are Bermuda's friendly societies – the latter in a standing exhibit that details "early doctors, the early nurses, the early savings clubs … and the whole story of [the US slave ship] The Enterprise".
"There are things in there that our people can learn about," said Mrs Wilson-Tucker, who likened the knowledge gained through a visit to going "from primary school to college".
"If it closes we're losing a vast amount of Black history. What we need is support. We need people to come there outside of the schools. We need them to recognise it and know that this is their history. You can't find it anywhere else. Up there at the National Museum they might have a smidgen of it but a lot of what I have down there you won't find it anywhere else here in Bermuda."
She continued: "It really hurts when I hear people come on the radio saying that we need to teach more history in school when you’ve got a goldmine sitting down there in St George's. And that’s what we'll lose if things don’t turn around soon. I can't afford to keep it open with nobody coming in."
She insisted that the museum's woes weren’t brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused Bermuda's visitor arrivals to plummet and restricted movement by residents.
"It's not something that has just come up," Mrs Wilson-Tucker said. "We've been struggling to keep our head above water for a while. Covid doesn’t really have anything to do with it.
"Admission is $5. We still have people, our locals, who will come there and walk right past the person sitting at the desk [saying] somebody told me a picture of my aunt is here."
When told they have to pay, many do an about-turn, Mrs Wilson-Tucker said.
"They walk out. We can't survive without the funds."
She runs the museum largely on her own, without pay. The only help she gets comes from a woman Mrs Wilson-Tucker gives "a small stipend" to for her work as treasurer.
"Basically, I'm pulling it on my own," she said. "If I wanted a museum I would have gone for it to be up here in the city, centrally located, where I know we would have gotten traffic. But this was the St George's people's idea and when [they died] not one of them left a penny to that museum. The founding members that went left us absolutely nothing and very seldom came there.
"This is the Bermudian Heritage Museum, not mine. I'm doing it as a favour for my country. I'm not going to say it hasn’t been pleasurable, because I've enjoyed doing the work, but right now it’s a question of am I going to keep going at the rate that things are going right now or am I going to just walk out one day and close that door and not go back."
Apart from securing funding, her dream is to find a successor who is equally committed.
"If I go today, not a living soul knows anything about that museum. Nobody can give you any history on it or anything like that because they haven’t taken the time to come and find out anything."
For more information visit bermudianheritagemuseum.com/