Museum with a difference

by Emmanuel Joseph

Museum manager Sampson behind the wheel of a virtual ship on the Wharf Memories floor.
Museum manager Sampson behind the wheel of a virtual ship on the Wharf Memories floor.

Within the walls of a certain 300 year old building on Queen’s Street, Speightstown, St. Peter is perhaps the best kept secret regarding the culture and history of Barbados and more specifically, of that northern town.

Arlington House Museum, may not be the most conspicuous in Speightstown, but by the time a first-time visitor is taken on tour by Manager Edwin Sampson, exclamations of “Wow!” and “Oh! I didn’t know such existed”, are the frequent responses.

Arlington House Museum is a special museum. A tour by a Barbados TODAY team yesterday, while accidental, found that this source of history and historical significance, is special because of the use of technological interactivity.

For example, as was witnessed, there are audio-visual projectors which allow visitors to see and hear aged Barbadians talk in intimate terms about Speightstown, plantation life and “the whole nine yards” of “king” sugar and prominent people of the time.

Sampson, whose seemed to know every aspect of the museum and the history like the back of his hand, guided the team through the various “theme floors” — Store Memories, Speightstown Memories, Plantation Memories and Wharf Memories.

Sampson started on the ground floor with Store Memories which he noted were all about the people of the town.

“We’ve actually kept the concept of the 17th century look with these windows that let in light and air; and behind six of these windows we have an audio-visual display, where you see the potter, the shoemaker, women of trade, the shopkeeper and businessmen. By pushing on that white button and taking the audio stick up, you can listen to the vendors and so,” pointed out the historian.

It was at this moment that he recalled that Arlington House is more than 300 years old, and was occupied by generations of Skinners for 200 years.

“And these Skinner families were very prosperous merchants,” he added.

speightownmuseumHe added that the walls of the house were all of coral stone and rock and were put together in those days with lime, sand and molasses.

“Sometimes they used eggs and stoute, like in the case of Blackman’s Bridge in St. Joseph, which is actually made of egg shells and egg whites,” Sampson related.

He described Arlington House as a long, narrow house, with a single gable and dormant windows and was built east to west instead of north to south.

“Now east to west in those days, meant you paid less taxes, rather than taking up so much frontage on the road by building it long and narrow; and of course it was very favourable with the trade winds, which meant it was cool all year round,” the head of the museum declared.

Speightstown Memories was the next floor.

“So you are actually walking on an 1820 Emmanuel Bowen map of Barbados,” he advised as the team stood with him on the map laid out on the floor.

“Now this map is fully detailed where all the names you see on the map are all land owners and they were all eligible to vote once they had owned 10 acres of land or more during that time.”

Sampson told Barbados TODAY, that locals and tourists were encouraged to examine the map for any family or ancestral names. Persons are also free to take still photographs of any exhibits in the museum. The map also showed all the forts in Speightstown at the time.

On the Plantation Memories floor, one got the feeling of walking into a cane field. There are displays that appear to be large cane stalks. This section comprises 18 exhibits, six of which are audio.

The final floor — Wharf Memories — was an attic where the Skinner children played back then. On this floor, one got the sense of being on a jetty of a wharf.

“We have a virtual turtle that turns around. There is a sand screen which has never been seen in many museums around the world; and we have 17th century images displayed on the sand screen of early Barbadian heritage.”

The museum manager showed too, a scale which calculated a person’s value in sugar cane in 1930 and the life-size bust of one Sted Bonnett, making a virtual speech. Bonnett was the owner of Bonnetts Plantation.

Of note is that when this reporter went on the scale, it revealed that I would have been worth one dollar, considering that a ton of cane was $10 in 1930.

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