The Role of Storytelling in Heritage Preservation
Written by Caspar Tromp
Let me start this article with a story.
Otrobanda, 1935, St. Thomas College. Standing on his school’s playground, my grandfather, then a little boy, is under great stress. Earlier, he had to leave his beloved parents in Aruba to pursue a better education on Curaçao, which was not available on his native island. Now, he was there on a different island, far from his parents and with various family members he did not know well. After school hours, he also got to know Willemstad. He often passed the many lively alleys, occasionally buying furniture in the “karpinte” (carpenter) of the IJzerstraat in the current Kura Hulanda district. Historic Willemstad was a city then full of activity. The many different people living in the houses, the port, and oil-refinery activities, and the wealthy Venezuelans who came to shop luxury articles all contributed to an environment that stimulated the senses. But at that moment, he did not think of that all. Playing football on the playground and showing off to his classmates, he broke a window shooting the ball right through it. And the punishment that would await him, he would remember to tell new generations.
Photograph of my grandfather at the former St. Thomas college in Otrobanda, showing the place of the window he broke to my father in the ‘90s.
Of course, my grandfather survived that day and continued his ambitions in later stages of his life, becoming an important politician. He would walk around with my father in the streets of Willemstad, pointing to all the places of his childhood and his working years, the governmental buildings – all monuments – where he used to work. And when in 2009 I visited Curaçao with my father, we passed all those same places. My father showed me the exact window in Otrobanda, which my grandfather had broken, and the buildings where he worked. My father also told me of the times that he spent and lived in Curaçao, also still remembering Willemstad from before 30 di mei 1969, a significant day in the history of Willemstad.
Willemstad now, in 2021, looks very different from 1935, and despite having become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it faces many challenges in heritage conservation. Often, the lack of involvement and interest in heritage by different generations on the island in heritage is blamed. Therefore, those who work in heritage are often pondering how to involve the general public in heritage and create a stronger sense of interest and ownership. Storytelling, I believe, is a natural cultural expression of the Antilles that can be further explored to engage the islanders and create more heritage awareness. Even more so as heritage in essence is about history, which word already includes “story”.
Storytelling is an important part of the Antillean culture. Often with theatricality, a good dose of drama, feeling and wild hand gestures, pauses and breaks, different voice tonalities, and loud laughter, Antillean people know how to make even the most insignificant story seem impressive. From the times of resistance towards colonial oppression, stories like “Kon Kompa Nanzi a Nèk Shon Arey” have passed down generations to form the Antillean identity. Stories of resistance were likewise also integrated into the tambú, which for some time was even forbidden. Perhaps, stories were also ways to entertain on small islands with (back then) a more conservative society and fewer options for leisure.
Storytelling is making a hot comeback worldwide in professional presentations to teach and engage people. TEDx presentations almost always use personal stories to engage the public. Slowly, this is happening in Curaçao too. During the “Transforming Urban Curacao” project of UNOPS, workshops with communities focused on nostalgic memories of Otrobanda’s inhabitants to form a vision for the future. Willemstad’s inner city was remembered as a place that brought people together to socialize, entertain, recreate, celebrate and reflect. The charming alleys, squares, and iconic monuments of the area played a central role in the community’s memory. Storytelling is also used in heritage education, such as the recent award-winning “Kucho di Otrobanda” project. Jeanette van Ditzhuijzen and Els Langenfeld, among other authors, have worked for years to gather all the different stories of life and activities within the walls and streets of Punda, Pietermaai, and the “Kas di Shon”. The many stories that I heard personally from my grandfather, father, and other family members have led me to feel strongly connected to the islands’ history, culture, and heritage, even though I am of a generation that grew up abroad.
However, it is also important to tell the right stories. Sadly, the history of colonialism and slavery is connected to those monumental buildings that we today find so pretty, sometimes arousing mixed feelings as a result. As most people left to the suburbs and the inner city critically deteriorated subsequently, the stories of the glory days of Willemstad changed. Willemstad is currently often perceived as a poor, gritty, and therefore a threatening area. With retail stores elsewhere, it has even lost its attraction as a shopping district. Instead, it became a place for international cruise tourists or vacationers who come for a quick look at the Handelskade, the pontoon bridge, and some souvenir stores in Punda’s alleys. Some who stay longer also visit the nightlife in Pietermaai, and perhaps the Kura Hulanda Museum and street art in Scharloo and Ser’i Otrobanda. The story has increasingly stigmatized Willemstad as a decayed place from the past of slavery, which is now only interesting for tourists. Nowadays, tourism primarily owns the inner-city, not the residents. You can see how this story of Willemstad creates a divide on the island between its inhabitants, their heritage, and the temporary visitors. Making it more challenging, we are living in the age of social media, where opinions, not always based on facts, spread quickly.
Although important to tell this side of history, research and stories from the past paint a different picture of how creole and multicultural Willemstad was in its early days. People found empowerment, leisure, resistance, and upward mobility even within the colonial restrictions of those times. Think of Piar, who fought for people of color in revolutionary Venezuela and whose birth house in Otrobanda still exists. Occasionally, there was the unfortunate drunkard who, after drinking too many glasses of rum in the bars of Punda, fell into the St. Ana bay and drowned. Or the few surviving silversmiths and tailors that tell of the unique artisan products in the alleys. To engage Antilleans in heritage, we need to tell both stories.
Aside from creatively using storytelling to engage Curaçaoans in Willemstad’s heritage preservation, there is another challenge. I am convinced that it is of utmost importance to ensure that stories will also be created for islanders in the future of historic Willemstad.
In the past, stories were created because people lived, worked, breathed, loved, grew, and faced challenges within the walls and alleys of the inner-city. While in the past more or less 10.000 people lived there, currently there is a shrinking population of approximately 2000 inhabitants (on an island of 160.000!). They are getting more and more replaced by temporary visitors who take their stories back home abroad.
Therefore, to ensure future engagement of the population in heritage, we need to make sure that Willemstad becomes a significant place where islanders live, work, shop, play, love, and grow. When people feel ownership of their place, they are also more likely to take care of it. In conclusion, both heritage education and a well-thought-out housing policy for the inner-city are crucial for its future preservation.
I want to end this article with some things I want you to think of, dear reader. What stories have you heard from your elders about the old days of Willemstad? What are the memories that you have there? How do you think that storytelling could help engage islanders in its heritage preservation? What are the stories that you would love to make there in the future?
Ditzhuijzen, J. van, Langenfeld, E. (2017) Willemstad: Het dagelijks leven in negentiende-eeuws Punda. Volendam: LM Publishers, 11-139.
Transforming Urban Curaçao. Community and Expert-Based visioning for localizing the New Urban Agenda. 2019. United Nations Office for Project Services, Copenhagen, Denmark.