Life in a Faraway Kingdom: Denmark and the 2017 Centennial

The following is an introductory article to a new Source series about issues and plans related to Denmark’s participation in the upcoming 2017 centennial of transfer. The Source is in the process of seeking out a reporter in Denmark to give us occasional updates on centennial events that might otherwise be on the periphery of Virgin Islanders’ awareness.

Present-day Danish society can seem remote to many Virgin Islanders, even those who hold an interest in that nation’s centuries of shared heritage with the USVI.

One reason is that, unlike many Caribbean islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands are separated from their former colonial ruler not only by an ocean but also by language. Although most Danes today can speak or understand English, Danish has never been the most common spoken language on St. Thomas, St. Croix or St. John, even during the era when Denmark administered the islands.

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But with so many different perspectives on the meaning of the 2017 centennial of the territory’s transfer from Denmark to the U.S. even among our own small population, it’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that when it comes to Danes’ view of their colonial history, interpretations can be equally splintered.

Museums and the Arts

Much of what goes on in Denmark related to the Virgin Islands is spearheaded by public cultural institutions like museums and universities, which have recently been hit with steep budget cuts, unfortunately just in time for the centennial.

Government sources say these cuts won’t hinder Denmark’s participation in the centennial, but individuals working in various institutions have been remarkably consistent in telling the Source that austerity is already complicating their plans for 2017.

Following a 2015 national election, Denmark’s government has taken a rightward shift, partly due to what many Danes see as an immigration crisis and growing dissatisfaction with the European Union. One result has been that Danish arts academies, theatres and museums, generously funded in the past, have been told to cut their budgets by 8 percent over the next four years, or 2 percent each year.

When the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, the country’s largest museum of cultural history, decided to cancel all planned large temporary exhibitions, one casualty was an exhibition about the Virgin Islands being planned for the 2017 transfer centennial, confirmed museum spokesman Henrik Schilling.

Schilling said that cancellation doesn’t mean the centennial will be completely neglected. The museum plans to put an increased focus on the Virgin Islands in its permanent collection, he said, and will continue its research programs, surveys and publications on the islands.

But for many Danes interested in raising awareness about links between their nation and the USVI, the exhibition’s cancellation was felt as a heavy blow, especially when paired with another closure in Denmark’s capital.

In 2016 the Vestindisk Pakhus (the West India Warehouse), a historic building that holds collections owned by the Danish National Gallery and the Royal Danish Theater, was closed to the public. The building once belonged to the Danish West India and Guinea Co., a chartered company responsible for administration and trade in the West Indies, including the trade in human beings.

Due to the building’s history, curator Henrik Holm, who is in charge of the Royal Cast Collection housed there, said he was interested in hosting educational exhibits and events related to Denmark’s role in the Atlantic slave trade but financial cutbacks limited his options and all plans for 2017 have been canceled.

“This has caused some interest from the media, but nothing that can save the house from closure and neglect,” said Holm. “If someone from the outside world has the money and the ideas for projects related to the warehouse and 2017, we will of course take a friendly look at them.”

The curator of Denmark’s regional Holbaek Museum, Karen Munk-Nielsen, said she is worried that many reminders of her nation’s colonial history seem to be disappearing.

But one positive effect of the cancellation of the National Museum’s exhibition, she said, is that activities planned by smaller organizations may have a clearer voice during the centennial.

Munk-Nielsen said her museum is planning its own centennial exhibition, one that focuses on the connections between the former Danish West Indies and the region of Holbaek in Northern Zealand.

”I have also been talking to our school service, and we are discussing how we can connect and involve high school kids between the V.I. and Holbaek,” she said.

Munk-Nielsen said young people in the two places have in common the fact that they both live in areas where they are told that they “live on the outskirts of their country, where opportunities are poor.”

”What impact does that have on young people?” Munk-Nielsen asked. “Could it be an idea to let them connect on Skype and discuss a common future in this world?”

Other Danes take a more critical tone towards funding cuts that have affected centennial-related events, even when acknowledging cultural initiatives have suffered across the board.

”It seems symptomatic and emphasizes the denial of really dealing with our colonial legacy,” said Jeannette Ehlers, a Danish contemporary artist of Trinidadian heritage whose work often explores post-colonial themes, including Danish West Indian history.

Ehlers said dialogue about her country’s participation in the colonization of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade has not been as robust as she would like. But that may be beginning to change, she said.

“Over the last few years there has been more openness towards [colonial history] in some circles,” said Ehlers. “Mostly within academia and within the arts. I have experienced quite a large interest in the discourse of my work within the last three years … so it’s coming, but we still have a long way to go.”

Ehlers said she is working on a few projects for the 2017 transfer centennial including a memorial sculpture to be placed in front of the Vestindisk Pakhus. Ehlers has in the past visited the Virgin Islands and created contemporary video works on St. Croix.

As for other museums in Denmark, Kasper Jensen, an intern at the Danish West Indian Society, said there have been several rumored events but no institutions have provided any information to the public yet.

“We have just made an arrangement with Atlantic Link (the Danish section of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism) to create a website that will give people an overview of all initiatives, activities and exhibitions which can be related to the commemoration of Transfer Day in 2017,” Jensen said.

The Archive

Some institutional efforts in Denmark related to the upcoming centennial have been ambitious attempts to repair injustices resulting from colonial rule in the islands, such as a contemporary lack of access to records.

Since transfer, the Virgin Islands’ historical record has been scattered between the territory, Copenhagen and Washington, D.C., among other places, making research difficult and financially burdensome.

In 2013, the Rigsarkivet, the Danish National Archives, began the task of scanning all documents related to Denmark’s colonial past in the West Indies. The archive plans to make those documents completely accessible online by 2017, an enormous and expensive gift from Denmark to the Virgin Islands.

In 2016, the archive announced that all documents have been scanned into a database consisting of approximately 5 million image files. Now the project needs volunteers to help transcribe and organize the files so that they will be ready to be accessed next year.

Recently the archive introduced a crowdsourcing transcription project for English speakers. All volunteers have to do is visit the project’s website and sign up to start transcribing.

“You can contribute by indexing (tagging) the personal names, place names and dates that occur in the records. By transcribing this data you make it easier for others to find a certain document that contains the name they are looking for,” a statement from the archive said.

The pilot program includes documents that are especially important for individuals researching their genealogy, including “censuses, tax records, registers of persons departing and arriving in the islands, parish records of births, marriages and deaths, muster rolls for the West Indian troops, muster rolls for the Gendarmerie Corps and police court records.”

In Search of Identity

One of the most ambitious centennial projects Denmark is involved in, and the one that has seen the most press in the USVI, is a partnership between the territory and two Danish schools of architecture.

The project, called “In Search of Identity,” was introduced by Sen. Myron Jackson in 2015 and proposes to convert the old Christiansted military barracks into a university level school of architecture and the J. Antonio Jarvis School on St. Thomas into a museum and school of arts and culture.

Helping to coordinate the project across the Atlantic is the Association of Owners of Historic Homes in Denmark, which goes by its Danish acronym BYFO.

“The overall intention is that the two institutions planned will create the basis for a cultural heritage sector,” said Ulla Lunn, a Danish architect who is on the project’s steering committee.

“In Search of Identity’s” proposal called for a $20 million budget, half to be raised between the territory’s public and private sectors and half to be raised in Denmark’s private and public sectors.

“To raise $10 million in Denmark is going to be a very hard task as you can imagine with the general cuts in the whole community and the challenges we face in Europe,” said Lunn. “In Denmark we also tend to focus on our own problems and Denmark in general is not very aware of our colonial past.”

Lunn said that in June the results of projects undertaken in the USVI by students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture and Aarhus School of Architecture will be unveiled both in the territory and in Denmark. Once that is done, fundraising measures for the project will intensify. (See Link: Danish Students Work on Design Plans for Historic V.I. Buildings)

“We can say that we are applying for seed money to be get the discussion started on the political level. We have some funding from the Ministry of Culture, but will have to match it 50-50,” she said.

Lunn said the process of getting money earmarked for the project through the political process will be started this spring. Large corporate foundations in Denmark will also be approached.

“These are, of course, reluctant if the government is hesitant, and also these foundations have a lot of tasks in our own community and many are hesitant to donate abroad. These are general concerns and we have a long way to go in the clarification of the organization, monitoring and managing of the projects and the money that goes with it.”

Lunn also said that a group of Danish “V.I.-aficionados” and the Danish West Indian Society have decided to establish a “Virgin Islands Cultural Embassy” in Copenhagen for 2016 and 2017. The “embassy” will be a private, volunteer initiative designed to welcome all Virgin Islands artists, musicians, poets, dancers, researchers and others who wish to use the space for performances, talks, shows and other events.

“We have the site, we have half of the money, and have applied to the Ministry of Culture for the other half of the money to pay the rent,” said Lunn.

“The V.I. Centennial Commission has been informed about our initiative and when we have the final ‘go’ from the Ministry of Culture we are ready to plan for the centennial celebration from October 2016 to October 2017.”

Lunn said she hopes the volunteer “embassy” will allow interested Danes and Virgin Islanders to interface with each other regardless of the financial situation of Denmark’s cultural institutions.

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