The right to access cultural heritage was recognized as a basic human right over 70 years ago. It makes perfect sense. People have a right to their history and their culture.
Heritage takes many forms: buildings, photos, documents, language, songs, dances, objects and more. Many of these things need to be physically preserved. They need to be protected from water, fire, rodents and other threats that are as old as time. Keeping these materials safe may mean limiting access to them.
Luckily, the digital age has created new ways to share heritage. Scans, photos, transcriptions and videos can give cultural access to almost everyone. There’s no limit to the number of objects that can be on display. It doesn’t matter if the original copy is in an archive thousands of miles away. Vast collections can be searchable in an instant.
In an age when limitless cultural access is possible, how is St. Martin doing? Neither the territorial archives of Saint-Martin, nor the national archives of Sint Maarten are online in any form. Key collections of history, heritage and archaeology are not online either. Records and documents from St. Martin are available from digital collections in France, the Netherlands and the US, but these are often incomplete or difficult to find.
The lack of digital access is made worse by the lack of physical access. After the destruction of the médiathèque in Concordia, there is no public access to the archives. The Jubilee Library only offers a fraction of its collection at its temporary location.
Amazing work has been done to preserve heritage. Materials were safeguarded through Irma and collections were rebuilt after. Intangible heritage has been documented. Individuals have shared photos and stories online. The people doing this work, often for decades, are heroes.
But it is still not enough. As long as the island struggles to find the resources to preserve heritage, it won’t have the ability to share that heritage. In a vicious circle, that hidden heritage is valued less, and fewer resources are given to protect it.
It is time to give St. Martiners access to their culture. This will require new resources for the task. It can create good jobs digitizing, organizing and presenting these materials. It will rekindle interest and pride in St. Martin culture. It can be a resource for schools to teach kids about their home. It will make St. Martin a more interesting place to live and to visit. And it is a right. The people of St. Martin should demand it.
What cultural heritage do you want access to? Let us know by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org or to The Daily Herald.