Endangered Archives

EAP408: From the brink: identifying, collecting and digitising records of the Turks and Caicos Islands after the destruction of Hurricane Ike

Dr Donald Keith, Turks and Caicos National Museum
2010 award - Pilot project
£12,242 for 8 months

VIEW FILES FROM THIS PROJECT

Project Overview

The need for identifying archival records on the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is urgent. The Turks and Caicos National Museum is the only cultural institution in the country with a mandate to collect and care for historical and cultural records. The TCI lack a formal national archive, which has led to the loss of irreplaceable archival materials through destruction by forces of nature and by man. The Museum's 50 linear foot archival collection represents the only known archival records on the TCI. These scattered and incomplete records are the only available evidence of TCI institutional transactions prior to 1920. This pilot project seeks to identify, document, and collect governmental and other documentary records that are currently at risk of deterioration.

The TCI were a major source of Caribbean salt production from the 1600s to the 1960s. The small collection of archives currently held by the Museum point to a rich source of documentation regarding governmental policies surrounding shipping activities and interaction with inhabitants; including slaves, prisoners, and American loyalists who immigrated to the TCI to escape persecution in the late 1700's. Many records regarding the growth of the tourist industry are held in private collections of individuals and inaccessible to researchers or the general population of TCI. The scarcity of records coupled with the lack of cultural based institutions leave the young people of these islands with little basis for identity as TCI citizens.

A survey of colonial archives conducted in 1983 inventoried 2,000 titles, representing thousands of records. The most important of these records were moved to the local library's attic, where they sustained severe damage and were eventually disposed. The remaining records were moved to various storage locations over the years. These records need to be located, identified, and made available for research and purposes of cultural identity.

During the category 5 Hurricane Ike in 2008, Grand Turk, the island on which the seat of government and the Museum rest, sustained damage to 80 - 90% of its buildings. The government office buildings were deemed uninhabitable and relocated, but the records transfer and storage has been difficult. Older records remain in the damaged buildings, including the 1960 aerial photographs from the Land and Survey Department that document a period of extensive development.

The storage building known to hold the 1983 surveyed archives was severely damaged in the storm, purchased privately, and turned into a business. The archives were not recovered from the business owner and their whereabouts are uncertain. The Museum, in contrast, remained relatively undamaged by the hurricane due to the staff's implementation of the emergency plan and the building's structural integrity.

One of the key outcomes of this project will be the identification of the surviving records from the 1983 Colonial Archives Project Report and an assessment of other at risk collections in damaged government offices. An investigation will be conducted into the last known location of the records mentioned in the report. A survey will be conducted of the governmental offices, library buildings, and other suspected locations holding archival material prior to 1980. All the information collected will be compiled into a written report, which will contain the location, extent, brief scope and content, dates of creation, and the creating entity for the identified records. As per the EAP Guidelines for Producing Surveys, the project's focus will be on documenting the context of identified records, and with the expectation that the information collected will be used as a subject of a major project. Collections of pre-1900 records will immediately be collected and entered into the Museum's database -immediately improving access and safeguarding a disappearing body of records. While the focus of this project will be on government records from pre-1900, the opportunity will not be lost to include significant documents from other eras or from privately held collections, should the occasion arise.

In addition to the principal investigator, a trained archivist will assist with the project. The archivist will be responsible for collecting pertinent information at survey meetings with government administrators. Through discussions with the principal investigator the archivist will identify records of historic value or those at risk of rapid deterioration and oversee the transfer of these materials to the museum, paying careful attention to context and original order. The archivist will recommend archival storage materials necessary for the care of transferred records, make certain that the records are properly stored, and enter the records into the Museum's database. The archivist will also support the museum's policy of providing professional development to local government agencies through seminars and onsite training. A part time staff member will be trained to handle records according to archival standards.

The outcomes from the pilot project will include a written report of the survey results and the relocation of pre-1900 documents to the Museum's storage faculty. The report will provide an estimation of the extent of records to be documented and digitised and indicate if further work is necessary. The hope for this project is to create evidence for the need of establishing a national archive and to prevent the further loss of records. The argument for a national archive is particularly timely and relevant as encouragement for governmental transparency and as a support of good governance. This pilot project will, at the very least, create a more comprehensive record of TCI history and open it to research and use by the local populations.

Project Outcome

The project located the major repository of the Government Archive records and investigated any other reported or potential storage areas on the inhabited islands of Grand Turk, Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, South Caicos and Salt Cay.

A dialogue was started with the Governor’s Office regarding the eventual re-housing and re-location of the Government Records currently stored in the Old Police Station, Grand Turk, despite this being a time of great financial and political distress in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

A record preservation and digitisation dialogue was started between the Familysearch.org organisation in Utah, USA, three main churches and the Government Ministers who oversee, Land, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Wills, Probate and Debentures, Immigration and other migration and registration records.

Church groups visited to see how important and fragile the records in the Turks and Caicos National Museum were and to highlight why the records should be kept there, thus avoiding previous legal and ownership debates.

Four linear feet of Government records from before 1900 were removed from the Old Police Station storage area, including cleaning, conservation and re-housing of one linear foot of Dispatches from King’s House, Jamaica, 1858, from the Old Police Station.

One volunteer and one local museum part-time staff member were trained in how historic documents and records were cleaned, digitised and catalogued into the TCNM’s database. Basic archival seminars were given to local government employees and church ministers.

The District Commissioner’s offices on South Caicos and Salt Cay have moved the endangered archival material pre- and post-1900 to safer storage areas within their air-conditioned office spaces, making them a little more accessible. Pre-1900 records were recovered from the South Caicos storage area and placed into the TCNM’s climate controlled archival storage.

Survey report (PDF file 6790KB)

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP408/1 Selection of Records from the Office of the Council President of the Turks and Caicos Islands [1853-1859]

The catalogue is available here.