The records of the Bridgetown Synagogue Restoration Project (BSRP) are now fully processed and digitized. The finding aid gives a detailed description of the papers. The majority of the collection has been uploaded to the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) and can be freely viewed online here.
Since the mid-1980s, the non-profit BSRP has spearheaded a series of cultural heritage interventions in a city block that is part of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site of historic Bridgetown and its Garrison. These initiatives include the restoration of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue (1985); the conservation of the adjacent Jewish cemetery (2001); the establishment of the Nidhe Israel Museum (2008); the unearthing of the Mikveh (2008), etc. The last phase of these works, just completed in November 2016, has been the redevelopment of the whole block surrounding the synagogue. This ambitious undertaking has breathed new life to a series of architectural gems, such as the old Firehouse and Weights and Measures building, and artisans’ workshops, and created amenities for locals and tourists alike (such a cafe and an art gallery).
The importance of the collection for research
For those who will be visiting the newly redeveloped city block with the beautifully restored buildings and welcoming, serene surroundings, the BSRP records are witness to what was there before and how what we see today came to be. This city block, rich in history, is a site of converging memories and entangled identities in the context of a colonial past and a postcolonial present. The BSRP records are primary sources that paint a vivid picture of such convergence and entanglement and are important for a range of disciplines.
History and Social Science: The BSRP records offer insights into Barbados’ political and socioeconomic scene in the last quarter of the 20th century. Through the evolution of the project over distinct phases, historians, social scientists, as well as political scientists, can glimpse history unfolding and study political figures, community leaders, bureaucrats, professionals, and other personalities on the island and abroad.
Jewish Studies: For scholars in Jewish Studies, the BSRP collection is a versatile resource. It presents a sweeping overview of one of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere along with its cemetery and mikveh. The records outline the story of the synagogue’s downfall, together with the decline of the community in the late 19th century, and its eventual restoration. Parts of the collection will be useful to scholars who study Jewish material culture or architecture. Furthermore, the collection highlights the transition of the Jewish community in the island from its Sephardic past, rooted in the deep trauma of the exile from the Iberian peninsula and subsequent wanderings in the Atlantic world, to its equally traumatic Ashkenazi present, rooted in the escape from rising anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Caribbean Studies: An audience question that came up during the presentation of the project at the Caribbean Digital III was whether this is a Caribbean project. In a nutshell, yes: It was developed in cooperation with local people and resources right here on the island. The records are part of Barbados’ documentary heritage. They are an integral part of Caribbean history and culture, one that is a potpourri of a diverse set of populations moving in, through, and out of the region in the ages.
Postcolonial studies: The BSRP records document in detail a cultural heritage project at a site steeped in the island’s colonial past. The dynamics among social and political powers involved at every step of the project inevitably raise questions of the politics of representation, interpretation, and, eventually, knowledge creation and control through cultural heritage.
Digital Humanities: For digital humanists, the BSRP collection offers important primary sources for developing robust digital humanities projects. The collection can be used as a basis for projects that provide new, mobile, and virtual ways to interpret and represent existing structures, such as the cemetery. The collection can also be used as an incentive to ‘unearth’ the stories of other populations, such as the Quakers or the enslaved, who lived side-by-side with Jews in this city block and who left only some fleeting traces.
The decision to host a large part of the digitized collection in dLOC was taken consciously in order to a) offer increased access and greater visibility for the collection, and b) guarantee the long-term preservation and reliability of the digital surrogates. Moreover, dLOC functions as a link and window between the BSRP collection and other Caribbean collections, and through dLOC’s partnership with DPLA, other international collections as well.
But what are the implications of digitization for this analogue collection? Has digitization transformed the collection’s dimensionality? If so, how?
The digital images are a different instantiation of only a part of the collection. If one is to make assumptions, read through the lines or against the grain, or write on any aspect elucidating any activity or function represented in the collection, one still needs a holistic view of the entire the collection. The digitized images, available freely online, offer unparalleled ease of access from anywhere, albeit only partially. Nothing can beat the elegance, depth, and insight of the archival description, as manifested in the collection’s finding aid, and the physical records themselves that are now safeguarded for the future at the Archives Department, Barbados’ national archives.
A personal note
In many senses, this was a collaborative process. At every step of the project, I had the chance to meet and work with many people who shared their knowledge with me and graciously offered valuable assistance. Collaborating with them greatly enhanced the integrity and quality of the finished product. I want to sincerely thank each of them.*
Completing this project was a bittersweet moment. I had spent a year immersed in an exciting history–the restoration of the Barbados synagogue, and a series of other projects surrounding the synagogue block–and I had come to be fascinated by the people involved; their character traits popping out from lines of hand-written or typed text; and the sheer intensity of the history of the place distilled in those records that I had the privilege of processing and studying throughout 2016.
However, this not an end, but rather a beginning: An archival collection processed that raises a myriad other questions. A well-defined part of the city–the synagogue block–that invites new research inside and outside its boundaries, be it physical or intellectual. And many entangled histories–wandering Jews, enslaved Africans, persecuted Quakers, English colonists, and many others–all living side by side under British rule.
In which ways can we bring together these narratives by developing public history projects that help people vividly understand the past? These are some ideas I will explore in an upcoming presentation at the “Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World” conference in Charleston, NC, in June 2017.
*People that I wish to thank:
In Barbados: Sir Paul Altman, Coordinator, Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project and Chairman, 1654 Management Inc.; the Altman Realty staff, particularly Anna Croney, Chantal Gilkes, and Cindy Richards; Dr. Karl Watson, Professor of History (retired), University of the West Indies; Celso Brewster, Manager, Nidhe Israel Museum; Ingrid Thompson, Chief Archivist, Archives Department; Harriet Pierce, Librarian, Barbados Museum Shilstone Library; Felix Kerr, photographer; Sally Miller, Miller Publishing Company; and Geoffrey Ramsey, Managing Director, EPG Caribbean and Chairman, National Heritage Task Force of Barbados.
In the US: Gail Shirazi, Judaica Librarian, Library of Congress; Dr. Derek Miller, Visiting Lecturer, Anthropology/Archaeology, University of Richmond; Dr. Brian Whiting, Adjunct Faculty, Environmental Studies, Seattle University; the dLOC team, particularly Laura Perry, Dr. Laurie Taylor and Chelsea Dinsmore (from the University of Florida) and Miguel Asencio (from the Florida International University); Rebecca Jefferson, Director, Price Library of Judaica (University of Florida); and Bob Cope, photographer (NY).