Sitting proudly on the George Town harbor-front, the Cayman Islands National Museum takes pride of place on this stretch of coastline, a building of significant importance to the Islands that houses memories of time gone by as well as new and changing exhibitions that all speak to tell the tale of the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands National Museum is nowadays said to house more than 9,000 historic artefacts. This impressive collection can be traced back to one individual – Mr Ira Thompson, who collected artefacts as a hobby back in the 1930s. In 1979 his collection was recognised by Government as an important source of Caymanian memorabilia and so Government purchased the collection for the people of the Cayman Islands.
The structure itself has had a fascinating history. Built in the 1830s as a building where government business could take place, it is one of only a handful of buildings from the era and the oldest public building in the Cayman Islands. Known as the Old Courts Building, as it was often the location for Court proceedings as well as the local jail, the main part of the structure is a Caymanian ‘upstairs’ house, whose ground floor was once made from wattle and daub, a traditional mix of wooden sticks, clay and soil, that was very popular as a building material in the 19th Century. The upper floor, which was added on later, had been made from a timber frame complete with exterior steps to the building. These steps gave rise to the saying “Walking the 12 steps” whereby the accused would walk the steps on their way to Court.
The building also served as an important reference point for sailors and turtlers coming home, as a beacon would be lit and hoisted up the flagpole every evening as a signal for the men to guide them home. Another important element of the building was the notice board in the yard which advised people of current events.
Since it was first built for Government back in the 19th Century and in addition to being the court and jailhouse, the structure has been used as the island’s first post office, library, secondary school and dancehall. The main building expanded, with two more buildings added to the main section. In 1990 it officially opened as the Cayman Islands National Museum.
Sadly, the devastating 2004 Hurricane Ivan forced the museum to close for a few years while considerable renovations took place, during which time the building was taken down to its bare framework while being sympathetically restored. It was during these extensive renovations that an interesting discovery was made, some ancient graffiti written on the original walls at the time when the building functioned as a jail (known as the Old Gaol). Recognising the historical importance of this, the museum’s renovators preserved this graffiti and it can now be seen behind glass at the location. The Museum was finally reopened again in September 2009, a magnificently preserved curator of culture and heritage.
Attractions and exhibitions
No visit to the Museum should be complete without starting with the introductory video, which tells a succinct history of the islands. The Cultural History Gallery takes visitors on a tale of daring seafaring adventure, with the help of an animatronic model fisherman in a catboat. Current exhibitions include the Alvin McLaughlin: Steeped in Tradition social history collection and the historically-significant Celebrating 60 years of our first National Symbol: Our Coat of Arms exhibition.