Interior view of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico

Interior view of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico

The 19th century was witness to the emergence from European colonialism of most of the Caribbean nations. The need to redefine an identity and establish a culture that demythologized the European hegemony was a determining factor in the development of museums in the Caribbean. Naturally, the undeniable European influence on the first national leaders and intellectuals molded the historical cultural memory and continues to do so today.

In the 20th century, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was formed, along with many of the main museums of the world. The Latin American Institute of Museums (ILAM, for its Spanish acronym) and the Museum Association of the Caribbean (MAC) were also formed, helping create an integrated museum experience and displaying the region’s importance.

With the diversity of cultural contexts in the region as we enter the 21st century, the offerings of Caribbean museums are inevitably heterogeneous. Fine arts, history and science museums have perhaps the greatest academic and socio-cultural interest. But there are also museums like the Museum of Humor in Cuba, whose collection consists entirely of cartoons. Others center their collections on an emblematic national figure, such as the case of the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica, to mention a couple of exceptional examples that still have an educational interest.
The 21st century is an era of museums. In the Antillean Caribbean alone, there are about 433 museums registered with the ILAM, including parks and national preserves. Visits to these cultural centers have progressively increased in recent years, but a statistical increase in visitors does not necessarily mean additional visits by the same visitor. Therefore, museums are obligated to review their civic and cultural missions to maintain a focus that is up to date and consonant with changing demands.

Phenomena such as globalization and the power of the world market have obviously accelerated and facilitated exchange of information. But there has also been a process of transculturation, sometimes imposed and sometimes occurring naturally. This process has changed the concepts of culture in general and we have inevitably had to redefine the effectiveness of museums as cultural centers.

As all nations have been integrated into a large world market, the museums in the Caribbean have been forced to integrate competitive approaches into their visions and missions. A common practice today to attract attention from the business culture and at the same time provide support for operational costs is to create spaces within the museum for restaurants or cafes, gift shops and for sponsoring concerts and social events in general.

These practices, meant to accommodate the business culture and the entertainment world, can reduce the museums’ inherent missions, if they do not adapt their collections based on the reality in which they operate.

A collection begins to lose educational and cultural interest when the objects exhibited do not narrate a common history among a variety of discourses by the various segments of the public. The visitor is subtly disconnected from his ability to participate when he feels perceived as a mere customer being offered yet another consumer product.

For example, an exhibit that displays a documentary film when a button is pressed is not a convincing display of a genuine interest in considering participation and modernization. An excess of texts on a wall, followed by an object of historical or aesthetic interest, could become a kind of illustrated book of little educational value. Scenes such as these can prevent dialogue and critical thought.

The financial stability of our museums and other spaces created for cultural display and preservation must incorporate the best elements of information technology, communications and entertainment whenever these technologies facilitate the exchange of ideas and provide coherence to the knowledge to be gained from the objects in the collections. In this way, we can create a collective memory with a responsibly contextualized identity that can survive over time.

Autor: Miguel Ángel Torres Aponte
Published: December 27, 2011.

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