Visit The People’s Museum of Craft and Technology In Jamaica

If you should ever find yourself in Jamaica’s old capital, Spanish Town, wondering what to do, one of the many places of interest you must visit is The People’s Museum of Craft and Technology, formerly known as the Folk Museum.  The Museum is situated in what were once the stables of the Old King’s House complex at Emancipation Square.

Spanish Town

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to go on a tour of the museum and, what a treat it turned out to be! A beautiful miniature model of the Old King’s House colonial building was the first exhibit to be seen.  The tour guide eloquently spoke of the structure and the events that took place in the old capital, where the island’s seat of power under the British Crown remained for over 300 years.  It was from the Old King’s House building that the Emancipation Declaration was read in 1838, granting full freedom to the slaves.  The building is believed to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.

The museum boasts a number of other exhibits that celebrate the nuances of Jamaica’s history and its culture, from the post-emancipation era.  It is a testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of the Jamaican people who, with their new-found freedom, embarked upon the task of rebuilding their broken lives and their country in remarkable ways that have heavily impacted on the country’s governance today.

Limestone Filter, Kreng Kreng and the Kimbo Pot

The limestone filter was next on the agenda, and in addition to performing the task for which its name suggests, this innovative piece of appliance which could best be described as the modern refrigerator’s antiquated relative, was also used as a cooling jar to hold drinking water.  Then there were kitchen utensils like the kreng kreng and the kimbo pot.  Can I just tell you?!  The kreng kreng was used to store meat, and as it was hung over the coal fire, the meat in it was smoked for preservation. 

Home-made medicine, or what?

Being a permanent fixture above the fireplace, and used periodically, cobwebs became the usual feature associated with the kreng kreng.  Ironically, whereas today, we would remove the cobwebs as a part of our house-cleaning chores, in those days, the cobwebs were deliberately left to turn black from the soot.  When needed, they were removed, boiled and made into a brew to be given to young women who had just given birth.  It was popularly believed that this cobweb and soot brew aided the women in expelling the placenta!  If that method did not work, then the young woman was given a bottle and told to blow forcefully into it.  The act of blowing created pressure in the abdominal area which caused the woman to expel the ‘after birth’.  Wow!  This afterbirth ritual was about as natural as any naturopathic medicine could get!!

The Washboard

There were other household innovations that slapped awe all over my curious face.  Can you imagine using a washboard on laundry day?  Well, that is precisely what was used during the post-emancipation period.  In fact, in many rural areas across Jamaica, the washboard or scrubbing board is still being used today in washing.  While it might be difficult for most persons in the 21st century to ‘wrap their heads around’ the concept of using a washboard to wash clothes, it is easier to comprehend when you think of rubbing and slapping clothes against a rough surface in order to beat the dirt out of the fabric.  Rubbing and slapping the clothes on the washboard would seem like plain aggravation.  In truth, the principle is similar to the way a washing machine works today!  Sheer agitation.  Wow!

Appliances, Utensils and Tools

Well, if you thought you had just about seen and heard as much as you could about innovative thinking ‘outside of the box’, then try this one on for size, a stove made of cow dung, that was built by the early Indians.  It was used as an insect repellant!  Little wonder – a repellant.  It is a tad difficult to imagine one’s food being smoke-flavoured with anything other than that which is edible! 

The mortar and pestle is another kitchen innovation that still has its myriad of uses, even today, but back then, it was used to beat corn finely into cornmeal.  Of course, the kitchen would not be complete without its calabash or gourd to hold water.  There was also a coal stove and an oven made of clay.  Quite naturally.  Metal was not widely used in the island at that time.

It was interesting to see the changes in the types of materials and tools used throughout the years. The transformation could be seen from the use of stone, to metal, and eventually to the electricity on which we heavily rely today.

Musical Instruments

The musical instruments on display possessed strong African overtones, e.g. the Goombay drums (all African) and the Benta which were made from goat’s skin.  The Benta which was played at special occasions like funerals, was used in the Dinky Minnie dance. 

After learning about the various types of musical instruments, it was then time for the Balm Yard display.

Healing in the Balm Yard

A balm yard is a place of healing where Myalism was, and still is being practised today.  Myalism, a religious ritual that originated in Africa, is often referred to in Jamaica as “obeah”.  We learnt from our tour guide, that different colours represented different rituals, e.g. the colour blue was used for the healing ritual, red was used for love, white was used for the cleansing ritual, and so on.  Quite apart from the lamps that further mystified the ambience at these rituals,  there were also certain items like dried corn (on the cob) that meant wealth and longevity, folk remedies that were used in ‘baths’, teas and poultices for healing various ailments of the body, mind and spirit.

As the newly-emancipated Jamaicans tried to eke out an existence for themselves with their new-found freedom, agriculture emerged as the dominant trade.  We saw the types of tools, equipment and craft that the early Jamaicans used and or bartered when plying their various trades.

Architectural Framework

Then it was time to move on to a model of an early post-emancipation home made of wattle and daub, as well as Spanish walling.  As the society became more influenced by external factors, its economy grew, and subsequently, the construction methods were improved upon.  Concrete, as well as wooden houses began to appear with decorative themes such as fretwork.  Today, many homes in Spanish Town and even in certain areas in Kingston, can be seen with this type of decoration on them.  Of course, a home was not a home if it did not have the coconut brush (a brush made from coconut husk) to clean the red-dyed floor.

Children at play

Unlike our children today who are inundated with choices for toys that are ready-made, the children during the early post-emancipation had fewer choices.  However, the toys they played with were admirably fashioned by their own hands.  For example, they used ‘horse eyes’ (a two-toned seed), gigs which we now call ‘spinning tops’, trucks made of wood and other materials, dolls made from cornsticks, and cricket bats and Kenda cricket balls.  Another popular game the children enjoyed playing then was the Maypole Dance – an interesting art form that combines dancing with intricately woven patterns formed by the dancers.  Once the streamers are woven, the dancers leave them suspended from the maypole to dance around.  The music tempo then changes to a livelier tune, at which point, each participant takes a streamer and continues to dance until the pattern is undone.  The Maypole Dance is still performed today by various schools and social groups, particular around the time of our independence celebrations.

Of Wheels and Sugarcane Mills

The last exhibit to be viewed inside the museum was the giant water wheel.  Then on the outside, we saw large sugarcane mills into which juice from the sugar cane was poured and boiled until only the sugar crystals remained.  The process was repeated until a considerable amount of sugar was produced for consumption locally and eventually overseas. 

The Living and the Dead

Finally, the tour was completed with the horse-drawn carriages display.  Some carriages were used specifically to transport caskets at funerals, while other carriages were used as fire trucks and contained pumps and large hoses.

The Parting

Having travelled so far back into our history to learn more about the indomitable spirit of our people, in good times and in bad, it was time to return to modernity and its ever-changing dynamics.  Regrettably, all too soon, the visit to The People’s Museum of Craft and Technology had come to an end, but we now know for sure that our lives could never be the same again.  We must re-visit, there is so much more to the location;  it just was not possible to soak it all in.  The Spanish Town Square just outside of the museum (which contains abandoned structures that were once gutted by fire, and are to be restored and preserved in the future), has an epitaph, the four sides of which contain many stories of pirates, a head and three fingers, the maroons, ‘Mad Killer of Edinburgh’, Captain Bligh, and other notable moments in Jamaican history.  Not very far away from the square is the St. Jago De La Vega Cathedral, still being used, and in which many graves, hundreds of years old, have formed a part of the flooring.  That, of course, is another exciting tour all by itself. 

As we drove away, that significant portion of our history reached its old sculptured hands out to touch, guide and protect our young eager hearts, for always.

We must re-visit.


The Guest-writer on this post is Dawn Henry…


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