St Helena Day 2012 was celebrated with the first firework display the island had seen in ten years. But a decade earlier – on the 500th anniversary of the island’s discovery – it was marked with an even more significant event: the opening of its museum.
It was the result of an enormous logistical challenge, with a designer on the island having to liaise with the Friends of St Helena in the UK.
Click here to listen to the story behind the museum
Edward Baldwin, who acted as the UK contact, said: “We were relying very heavily on a very slow internet.
“I would get home of an evening, set my dial-up internet to download the designs and whatever was being sent form the island. Two hours later I could start editing the files and leave them to upload overnight, and I did that night after night after night in the main design period.”
As with so many projects on St Helena, getting materials to the island was a significant headache, said Edward.
“The showcases were built on the island by a local carpenter but we ordered steel fronts for them with laminated glass, which were shipped out from the UK.
“A couple of the crates broke loose in the hold of the ship in bad weather and a lot of the glass arrived cracked, and much of it was unusable.
“We had enough fittings but not enough glass, and a complete set of new glass had to be shipped out. Needless to say, it didn’t arrive in time for the opening.
“We are still working on changing glass because it is incredibly difficult to get the old glass out of these steel frames. Ten years on there are still frames with cracked glass.”
Tessa Smith, whose husband was chairman of the Friends of St Helena, was one of an army of volunteers who worked to get the new museum ready for its opening.
“We just used to go down every day and say, ‘Who wants what done?’
“I was painting at half past ten the night before the opening, and hoping it dried overnight.
“Everybody was excited. The speeches went on and on and on.
“What we have heard since is that many people who know museums say this is as good as many museums all over the world.”
Pat Reynolds, who runs heritage services in Surrey, in the UK, visited the island as a tourist. She said: “I was really, really impressed. It’s built with design values and the quality of interpretation one would expect in Britain that one would expect from a new-build county museum – and it’s in a place that’s like an English parish.
“The museum in St Helena has achieved the really difficult balance between the people who know the place intimately and know its story, and the people like me drifting by for a few days. It has to tell the story of St Helena to people like me who drift in and to St Helenians, and I think it achieves that magnificently.
“The care for users of all ages is very evident. I was very impressed with what I saw about how the museum works with the community.”
Asked what could be done to improve the museum, Pat said: “I would look at its shop. I think it could do more to work with local producers to create more for the tourists to buy and take away.”
The tenth anniversary was due to be celebrated with a programme of video screenings.
St Helena Museum: 10th anniversary (interview)