Cultural vitriol Editorial
Stabroek News
May 19, 2002

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One might have thought that in the middle of the political desert that is Guyana there would be a small oasis of culture watered by the springs of reasonableness and rationality. Not so. In our editions of yesterday and today [ please note: links provided by LOSP web site ] two (edited) letters appeared attacking those who are now or have been in the past associated with our cultural institutions. Vituperative in tone and intemperate of language, they sought to denigrate the work being done by the curator and board of Castellani House, and the former Archives Committee of the National Archives.

To take the last-mentioned first, it is, perhaps, worth recording exactly what the achievements of the former Archives Committee were. At a time when the National Archives came under the Ministry of Education, the committee secured European Union funding to repair the building in Main Street which apart from its leaking roof was in a generally dilapidated condition. State-of-the-art mobile shelving was installed to accommodate the documents, and most important, an air conditioner was acquired. Since stability of temperature and humidity are absolutely essential for the preservation of records, the funds also covered a generator which both had the capacity to run all the electrical equipment in the building and which was fitted with a 24-hour changeover switch.

While the Main Street premises constitute the repository for the documentary collection, the former RACS building houses the newspaper archives. While the nation's nineteenth and even twentieth century newspaper holdings are unique, they are also unfortunately in a very fragile state. The amount of work and money which would be involved in their restoration would be of such a magnitude that no external agency would provide the funding. The committee rightly decided on a microfilm programme, therefore, so that at least the contents of the newspapers would be on record for posterity, even if it might not always be possible to conserve the physical items themselves. To this end, an appropriate camera was donated by Guysuco, and money was allocated from the Lotto fund for the purchase of microfilm. Partners of the Americas supplied binding materials.

It might be added that the roof of this building as well was repaired, and a generator installed, and other grants - such as one from the Organization of American States - allowed for the purchase of computers and more binding materials for the archives in general.

Today's correspondent enquired whether praise in an editorial of May 10 for the former Archives Committee was intended to suggest that the present one had nothing to its credit. It was not. It might be observed, however, that where raising funds from international agencies is concerned, the present committee will be hamstrung by the simple fact that no archivist has been appointed; there is not even an acting archivist. An acting archivist functioned competently for some years, but he too has resigned.

The correspondent, Mr Duncan, appeared to believe that the ex-committee had claimed it had the potential to raise funds for a new archival building. That is not strictly accurate; what they had said was that they would do everything possible to try and raise funds. In any event, contrary to what Mr Duncan seems to think, they have no official status at this point in time whereby they can negotiate with external agencies for money, added to which they certainly cannot usurp the functions of the current committee.

The letter writer was particularly concerned that the former committee had sought a measure of autonomy, a concept which he appears to have confused with ownership. It has to be said that it is the norm for archival boards/committees in other countries to be at least semi-autonomous. In addition the suggestion had been made that logically speaking, the committee should come under the general supervision, not of the Ministry of Culture as is the case now, but of the Public Service Ministry which has responsibility for government record management.

This latter recommendation had come in the first instance from an outside consultant who had reviewed the state of the archives. The concern with control in the letter leaves one with the lingering impression that at the bottom of the current offensive could conceivably be lurking the matter of turf.

A brief word on Castellani House, which appears to be the hapless victim of all kinds of contumely. Leaving aside the other improper allegations the one about racial bias in the letter from Mr Dinanath published in yesterday's paper is the most disreputable.

Just what is the logical conclusion from the statements he made? That we apply an ethnic quota in paintings? What absurdity is this?

No institution is perfect. No board or committee is perfect. No official is perfect. But one is not seeking perfection; one is seeking evidence that an institution is largely discharging its mandate insofar as that is possible, and that boards, committees and officials are discharging their functions with a measure of competence as well as with integrity. Castellani House more than meets the standard for institutions, and the Castellani Board, its curator and the former Archives Committee more than meet the standard for committees and officials.

While not everyone will agree with every decision that might be made by the art gallery, that does not mean it is not making rational, defensible decisions and that its achievements since its inauguration have not been remarkable. By anyone's standards Castellani is a success story. Irrespective of race, irrespective of culture and irrespective of politics, both the institution and its works belong to all Guyanese, and all Guyanese can be proud of them.

And irrespective of race, irrespective of culture and irrespective of politics, we should commend those who have contributed to the gallery's success, starting with Mrs Jagan and her board, and including the present curator and her staff.

In addition, irrespective of race, irrespective of culture and irrespective of politics we should commend the board for its vision in approving the establishment of a sub-committee charged with raising funds to purchase paintings by the late Aubrey Williams for the national collection, a sub-committee which included Mrs Viola Burnham among its members.

It is evidence, if any were needed, that Castellani is doing the job it was intended to do in a clear-sighted way, and most of all, that it has the interest of the nation at heart. What more could one ask of any institution?