Cultural institutions Editorial
Stabroek News
May 10, 2002

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Whichever government is in office, a country needs a network of institutions to provide the framework for development and for the evolution of a national identity. Where the latter is concerned, it is cultural institutions which supply the link with the past, and give a nation its self-definition. Developed states have a range of museums, art galleries, portrait galleries, national libraries, archives and the like, which provide a sense of the continuity of the society and impart that consciousness of community so important to group pride. In places like the UK, the consciousness of community operates not just at the larger national level, but also at the local level. There, even many villages have their own museums, recording the past of the area and of the people who lived there.

In this country we have a dismal record where such institutions are concerned, although in fairness, in some instances the problem had its origins in the period even before independence. In addition, in developing societies there is always competition for scarce resources, and inevitably cultural institutions go to the bottom of the list of priorities. That is not a complete excuse, however, since quite often the problem is less one of money than of will, organization and imagination. The great success story of the PPP/C Government in this department is undoubtedly Castellani House; the art collection itself has its genesis in the previous PNC administration, but the institutional framework for that collection is the work of the present one.

There is too the National Library, where the current Government, to its credit, ensured that it got a new wing. Despite that progressive move, however, nothing was done for the antiquarian collection - surely the nucleus of any national library - which still moulders away in the humidity of the old building. If the National Library has an obligation to the society at all, then its primary one is the collection and preservation of as complete a collection of works on Guyana and by Guyanese as possible. Those works do not just include books being currently generated, which under the statutes authors are required to deposit there, but also works from the past.

The National Library is in the unfortunate position of being a public library, which is open, as well as a national library to which there is or should be only limited access. However, it needs to be explained to the political authorities that the aims of a national library cannot be subsumed under those of a public library, and cannot take second place to them. A public library is about education, and a national library - although it serves an educational function as well - is primarily a heritage institution.

The big problem area in terms of cultural institutions, however, remains the archives. The previous archives committee had some remarkable achievements to its credit, and against all the odds, had managed to make commendable improvements. However, there is a limit to what can be done for the main archive in its current location. Some funding would surely be forthcoming if there were an archivist, but none has been appointed. The building is much too small for the purpose it is meant to serve, and all the promises of a new depository have not materialised. What this means in practical terms is that there is probably no space for the accommodation of documents being currently generated.

Mature nations have an archives policy which deals not merely with past records, but also with those which existing government ministries and official or quasi-official bodies produce. This policy encompasses what can be destroyed and what preserved, and all institutions covered by it have to operate by the rules. In most cases such records are made accessible to the public after thirty years.

Since the archives cannot accommodate the gamut of recent official papers, one suspects that it is left to the discretion of the ministries to decide what they are going to keep and what to destroy. And one suspects too, that even if they had a good sense of what needed to be preserved for posterity, most of them simply don't have the room or the resources to house a large volume of material.

The irony of all of this is that it is not just the past we are losing, but also in a sense, the present. At this rate the record of the present administration's period of office simply won't be available to future generations.