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Casemates Barracks goes National

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Seven years ago, the then Bermuda Maritime Museum, with the kind permission of the West End Development Corporation and its Chairman (later a Minister of the Bermuda Government), Lt Col David Burch, OBE, JP, ED, began a project of pre-restoration work at the historic Casemates Barracks, at the western end of the old Royal Naval Dockyard at Ireland Island.

On behalf of the Trustees and staff of what is now the National Museum of Bermuda, I thank that former commander of the Bermuda Regiment, Wedco, and the donors and many volunteers who have contributed to the Casemates project over the last six years.

You have all put the historic barracks area back on the heritage map, in ways not anticipated when we set out on what has proved to be an epic voyage.

However, please be advised that in this sabbatical year, the fields will still be tilled and there will be no let up in the work, no seventh-year holiday in the biblical, or academic sense!

The original concept was that the Casemate Barracks, including its two ancillary ordnance buildings and the adjacent Land Front fortifications should be cleared of trees, debris and the concrete remains of Bermuda's maximum security prison for men, a function the historic district served from 1963 until September 1994, when the Westgate Correctional Facility was built near the Dockyard.

Much of such labour is handwork and thus has been performed by a myriad of volunteers, many from corporate “Days of Giving”, such as XL Capital (one of the first), Tokio Millennium Re and Kitson's. For a good part of the period, a Saturday morning work crew, often led by Jim Butterfield, scaled the high rampart walls to remove casuarinas that were damaging the splendid masonry of the Casemates areas, while other volunteers demolished concrete block structures of the 1960s.

As the project evolved, people asked about the end product and the original concept was explained, but one day someone suggested that we should connect the Casemates area with the Bermuda Maritime Museum in the Keep at the eastern end of the Dockyard.

Hence, the concept of the project changed and the idea of rejoining Casemates to The Keep (a historic reality, as the road to the Commissioner's House passed up by the Barracks and down the long rampart on the northern side of Dockyard) took on steam, as if we had transited from the old maritime days of sail, subject to the whims of wind, to those of propulsion driven by engines, first of steam and later of oil, with some going nuclear.

With that rejoining concept, which drew all the surviving fortifications of the Dockyard (and the historic buildings within) back under the same umbrella, or command, if you think militarily, the notion of the transition of a maritime museum to being a national museum of Bermuda emerged.

The Cabinet of the Bermuda Government approved the idea in July 2009, following which the new ship of state had to follow a lengthy path to make the concept a reality.

In December 2013, His Excellency the Governor of Bermuda, George Fergusson, gave assent to The Bermuda Maritime Museum Association Amendment Act 2013 that officially changed the name of the museum to the National Museum of Bermuda.

Subsequently on 23 May 2014, leave was given by the House of Assembly to Wedco to grant a 99-year lease, on a peppercorn (cannonball) rent, to the National Museum for the surviving 15.78 acres of the Dockyard fortifications, from Commissioner's House in the east to Casemate Barracks in the west, to name but two of the very significant hard Bermuda limestone buildings within.

So congratulations to all the volunteers, donors, official entities and others, who have banded together over the last seven years to save the Casemates area, perhaps from a fate worse than a prison, and to create a national museum for Bermuda.

From the statement given to the House of Assembly by the Minister of Public Works, in that instant the Acting Minister and new Attorney General, Trevor Moniz (and appropriately, a former Chairman of the Museum), the following items may be quoted.

“Mister Speaker, this lease will allow for the establishment of the ‘National Museum of Bermuda', which will occupy and be responsible for the land, buildings and monuments totaling 15.73 acres within the Royal Naval Dockyard in Sandys Parish …

“Honourable Members will be aware of the accomplishment and reputation of the Bermuda Maritime Museum, now National Museum of Bermuda, as not only a world-renowned museum but as caretakers of (one of) the island's most visited historic tourist attractions.”

“Mister Speaker, I would like to extend the thanks of Government to our colleagues in the Loyal Opposition, who have supported the concept of the National Museum at Dockyard and I thank them in advance for their support today.

“The granting of this lease will not only build on the great successes of that world-renowned institution, it will safeguard the island's cultural heritage for future generations and provide an improved and expanded cultural heritage destination for our tourism market.”

In a sense, the Casemates project repeated in spirit and on the ground, the joining together of the community that took place in 1974, when volunteers worked to make The Keep a maritime museum for Bermuda.

The main focus of the National Museum of Bermuda will always reside in such an oceanic arena, but will expand its collecting and other mandates to include other aspects of our portable and built heritage.

It is thought that the transition to such larger heritage responsibilities would please many of the original trustees of the Museum, now departed on the longest voyage (eg, the Pat Butterfields, the Charlie Swans, the Dr Jack Arnells, and outstanding supporters such as the Rohan Sturdys), as the museum family moves into the future in its new role, which will be much augmented by the new spaces provided by Casemates Barracks “going national”.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum. Comments may be made to director@nmb.bm or 704-5480.

Two company groups recently assisted with pre-restoration work at Casemate Barracks at the National Museum: on the left is the team from XL Capital, with their slogan for their Day of Giving being “I'm working to make a difference”. In the centre picture are Scott Kitson and Teko Harvey, flanked on the right by the Kitson's team with their topical slogan “Doing (volunteer) time @ Casemates”.
Courtesy of the Ministry of Public Works, the upper image is a recent aerial photograph showing the grounds of the National Museum surrounding the old Royal Naval Dockyard on three sides. The lower image is a cut-out of the 15 acres of the Museum with some of the features of the fortifications named, along with the Casemate Barracks.

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Published May 31, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated May 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm)

Casemates Barracks goes National

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