Did the Schoelcher Museum in Pointe-à-Pitre become cumbersome?

The work of the Schoelcher Museum, which was supposed to last 24 months and therefore to be completed since July 2018, is more than two years behind schedule

Some people walk or drive past the Schoelcher Museum, located at 24 Peynier street in Pointe-à-Pitre and are unaware of the history of this building. It is true that, with time, its more than faded external appearance no longer attracted much attention despite an initial renovation which took place in 1998 on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

On July 21, 2016, renovation and extension work was launched, the laying of the foundation stone was made by the current President of the Departmental Council (General Council until 2015), Josette Borel-Lincertin, surrounded by several political figures. This project, which is being carried out as part of the Plan Musées en Régions, is supported by the State through the French Ministry of Culture.

As for the exhibitions, they were relocated to the Beausoleil residence in Saint-Claude, a place which also houses the Contemporary Art Fund of the departmental authority.

Upon delivery, this cultural venue should have more than 900 m2 of surface area spread over three buildings to accommodate the public (residents and tourists) instead of the original 234 m2, increase its exhibition surface area by 50%, have rooms reserved exclusively for exhibitions, educational workshops for the younger generation and various events (conferences, shows, etc.) and be accessible to people with reduced mobility.

The modern extension overlooking Jean Jaurès street was indeed built and recently the exterior of the historic building and the small pool in the courtyard are being renovated.

However, we wonder why this work, which was expected to last 24 months and therefore be completed since July 2018, is more than two years behind schedule? And on this point, lockdown due to the global Covid-19 epidemic, which is easy to blame for some time, cannot explain this significant delay. Some neighbours are very infuriated by this renovation work with noise pollution that does not end. But the majority of the inhabitants of Pointe-à-Pitre are now used to seeing cultural buildings beginning to be renovated and then being in a long artificial coma, such as the Centre des Arts et de la Culture (12 years) or the Renaissance cinema (10 years)…

We contacted the Departmental Council of Guadeloupe which did not respond to our request for information.

Built in 1883 to receive the objects and works that Victor Schoelcher left to the General Council of Guadeloupe – according to the Société d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe, the first General Council of the archipelago sat from 1827 to 1832 – this museum was inaugurated on July 21, 1886, i.e. 38 years after the abolition of slavery and 7 years before Schoelcher’s death.

The journalist, politician and musicologist (1804-1893) is known for having contributed to the liberation of enslaved Africans in the French colonies through the decree for the definitive abolition of slavery signed on April 27, 1848 by the Provisional Government of the Second Republic.

This 134-year-old museum, whose facades and roof were listed as Historical Monuments in 1979, has a rich collection. Indeed, Victor Schoelcher had offered Guadeloupe – according to the association “La Société des amis du musée Schoelcher” created in 2013 – a collection of 980 pieces including plaster sculptures of Greco-Roman statues made in the workshops of the Louvre Museum in Paris; these were presented to the public at the inauguration of the museum. These copies were restored in October 2015; on October 23, 2015, the public was even invited to meet the sculpture restorers working at the museum. Over the years, objects related to slavery and the slave trade were added to the collections.

From 2015, the opening in the Darboussier district of Pointe-à-Pitre of the Memorial ACTe – Caribbean Centre of Expressions and Memory of the Transatlantic Slave trade and Slavery – sank the Schoelcher Museum into oblivion, which was no longer the only place where they talked about slavery.

The Schoelcher Museum tried to move with the times. For example, between 2010 and 2015, it opened its doors to contemporary art through the “Carte Blanche” exhibition which allowed nine local artists – François Piquet, Alex Boucaud, Chantal Novelli and Nikki Elisé (2010-2011); Jean-Marc Hunt and Kelly Sinnapah-Mary (2012); Stan (2013); Ano (2014); Guy Gabon (2015) – to express themselves within its walls provided that their projects were related to the museum’s collections.

Today, voices are being raised to question the action of the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher who, thanks to his notoriety, became, several times deputy of Martinique and Guadeloupe from August 1848.

After gaining unanimity, the politician became a controversial figure.

The demolition of statues of historical figures such as Joséphine de Beauharnais, Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc and the removal of street signs Victor Hugo, Blénac among others operated in recent months in Martinique by anti-Béké and anti-colonialist activists are sobering. On May 22, on the occasion of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery on the sister island, two statues of Victor Schoelcher in the cities of Fort-de-France and Schoelcher (called until 1888 Case-Navire) were destroyed by demonstrators who do not recognize him as the “saviour” of slaves and their descendants.

Guiana joined this protest movement because the statue of Schoelcher, erected in 1896 and located in the square with the same name, was first covered in red paint and then on July 18 at night, during the curfew decreed in Cayenne because of Covid-19, it was thrown to the ground.

Some Martinicans are very surprised that their mobilization did not spread to Guadeloupe. How can we explain the rather indifferent reaction of Guadeloupeans to the demolition of statues around the world? Perhaps because, in the 1980s, Guadeloupe had already gone through a great identity and political crisis with the search for African roots (clothing made of African fabrics, African braids, African music), teaching of courses in Creole or “moments” during school hours to raise awareness among pupils in middle and high schools by separatist teachers (which did not always please parents), strikes, armed struggle for independence (bomb explosions, for example at the Prefecture of Basse-Terre, victims, arrests, trials ands convictions, emprisonments), renaming of Fort Saint-Charles (formerly Fort Richepanse) to Fort Delgrès in 1989…

Perhaps also because in 2009 the general strike during the crisis against the high cost of living – which some also describe as an identity crisis – led by some trade union and independence leaders was much more severe in Guadeloupe than in Martinique…

However, there were here a few stirrings. Indeed, on July 21, political and civil representatives had gathered around the bust of Victor Schoelcher on the Cours Nolivos square in Basse-Terre as they do every year, and we had heard a kind of warning to those who would dare to “tear down” statues in Guadeloupe, notably that of “a man who helped us greatly in the conquest of freedom”, as a historian said. This message was received loud and clear by one or more individuals who wanted to take up the challenge since, two days later in the middle of the night, the famous bust was cut up and carry away then discovered on July 24 in a ditch at the top of the Col des Mamelles…

If some voices question the importance of this French politician in the abolition of slavery and underline the struggles of the slaves to free themselves, others condemn this damage which would be due to a lack of knowledge of history or a desire to rewrite it.

Schoelcher’s defenders are convinced of his decisive role in the final abolition of slavery. On July 21, all administrations in the Guadeloupean archipelago, Martinique and St Martin remain closed to commemorate the date of birth of this politician. Not many people have this privilege in our calendar… except Jesus Christ at Christmas!

We can wonder why those who established this commemoration did not want to remember Victor Schoelcher on the day of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery: May 22 in Martinique; May 27 in Guadeloupe; May 28 in St Martin; June 10 in French Guiana? Why this “apartheid” in history? In Guadeloupe, is it incompatible to remember Delgrès, Ignace, Solitude and Schoelcher on the same day, if they fought the same battle and had the same ideal? With this wave of demolition of statues, this idea would now be a real provocation for the protesters.

For the moment, we have not yet heard of any acts of vandalism on the construction site of the Schoelcher Museum in Pointe-à-Pitre. But what will happen when the renovated and extended museum will open its doors? What security measures will be taken to protect the only Schoelcher Museum in France’s Overseas Territories?

Will the bust of Victor Schoelcher, which displayed proudly in the courtyard of the historic building before the renovation, be in its former location? Before or after the opening of the museum, will there be conferences-debates led by historians to allow the public to form its own opinion about Victor Schoelcher? Will the museum, which was no longer very popular, attract local visitors after all these controversies? Questions among many others that the Departmental Council of Guadeloupe is certainly asking itself.