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ON THE LEFT: Absence of local interest


PROF. PHILIP SHER

ON THE LEFT:  Absence of local interest

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ALTHOUGH THERE IS support for heritage tourism at the governmental level and in the private sector, there is still a great deal of ambivalence about how such an industry might take shape.

Heritage tourism develops around the presentation of history to foreign and local visitors and therefore is tasked with the construction and dissemination of specific historical narratives.

It is these narratives that are highly contested and it is here where the “politics of culture” is most clearly manifested.

The fundamental question is: How does a post-colonial, post-slavery society preserve the monuments and buildings of its colonial past while simultaneously presenting a history that the local population can embrace?

The question rests upon three underlying problems. The first is the role of tourism in the Barbadian economy and the need to create an additional source of revenue within that industry.

The second is the role that history and historians have played in the development of the modern Barbadian national identity; specifically in relation to the treatment of slavery. The third problem has to do with the general public’s perception of what historic preservation is and who it serves in the larger community.

Traditionally tourism in Barbados has centred around the natural environment but it has also involved very high-end leisure activities such as yachting, automobile rallying and polo. Competition within the Caribbean has led many islands to pursue tourism diversification which has included developing eco-tourism, adventure tourism, cultural tourism and heritage tourism.

Barbados has sought the development of heritage tourism because it has a rich legacy of colonial buildings in The City of Bridgetown and an impressive number of historic plantation homes still intact in the countryside.

The second problem that arises is related to the very desire to protect or preserve colonial buildings. Much of the history written about Barbados that arose in the 1960s and 1970s treats slavery as a combination of oppression and resistance and largely in rural areas.

This history is significant and important but it does not tend to focus on the contributions that slaves made to the construction and development of urban centres such as Bridgetown. Thus, contemporary Barbadians see their role in the construction of historical buildings as minimal.

Further, these buildings are often seen as the painful site of colonial oppression and domination as opposed to locations in which the enslaved served and persevered.

The third issue at play is the popular perception of historic preservation and preservationists in the society. Seen primarily as the pastime of the leisured classes, who tend to be white, historic preservation and its advocates such as the Barbados Museum & Historical Society and the Barbados National Trust are often thought to be simply in the business of glorifying the dead age of colonial power.

The most visible efforts at preservation are such things as sugar mills, plantation houses, colonial government buildings and military forts and structures. The general absence of local interest in preservation is not itself being addressed via, for example, local school-based educational programmes, tours, lectures and classes available for the public.

This constitutes an overall disconnect between local involvement and heritage and the government/private sector initiatives to enact preservation.

*Prof. Philip Sher researches Caribbean Issues at the University of Oregon.

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