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National Museum and Art Gallery (Royal Victoria Institute)

National Museum and Art Gallery (Royal Victoria Institute) 117 Frederick Street, Port of Spain

Written by Geoffrey MacLean

There is much speculation about the fate of the National Museum and Art Gallery or as it was known, the Royal Victoria Institute. Rumours abound as to its possible demolition to incorporate the site into the grounds of the new, and ostentatious, Performing Arts Centre.

Since writing this, Rudylynn de Four Roberts has quoted Mr. Vel Lewis, Curator of the National Museum and Chairman of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, as stating that there is a proposal to move the Museum to Knowsley, but that the Victoria Institute, although to become part of the Performing Arts Centre, is to be restored and maintained. But we need to keep our eyes and ears open.

The Royal Victoria Institute was built as a Science and Art Museum to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and was originally called the Victoria Institute. Predominately designed in the German Renaissance style, the architect was D. M. Hahn. The building was opened on 17 September 1902 by M. S. Devenish in absence of the Governor. Microscopic exhibits were seen by the public for the first time in Trinidad on this occasion.  Soon after the museum began to receive various gifts, one of which as an anchor believed to be from one of Christopher Columbus’s ships and lost off Icacos on his voyage to Trinidad.  It was presented to the nation by Francois Agostini, owner of Constance Estate on 9 March 1912.  The anchor was uncovered from a reclaimed site in 1877 in a location which corresponds to records of where Columbus lost an anchor at sea on 2 August 1948.

On May 19, 1920 the interior of the building was destroyed by fire. Only the external walls remained and most of the collections were lost. The main portion of the building was rebuilt using the same plan as the old building. It was reopened in June 1923 and was used for theatrical and musical entertainment and commercial classes.

By 1958 the building assumed regional importance as the site of the first sitting of the Federal Court of the Federation of the West Indies.  The Court met in the King Edward VIII Memorial Wing.

After Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence in 1962, Museum development seemed to have been given low priority.  Both the collection and the building deteriorated to a point where the Museum was forced to close its doors to the public in 1980.

The National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago, as it serves the public interest, relates to the historic, artistic, intellectual, economic, technological, legal, social, political and physical environments.  The national community looks to the museum for experiences of the collective cultural fabric of the past and the present.

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