Inclusive Conservation at Government House
Upon approaching the grand front entrance of Antigua’s Government House, the significance it holds in the country’s societal and cultural history is already apparent. The main building’s green roofs and shutters are framed by the many palm trees and shrubs of the same colour, creating an image of harmony and unity that reflects the house’s history.
Government House, which was included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch, is a symbol of the nation’s democracy, emancipation from slavery and independence dating back to the 1700s. Despite its structural persistence, the house and grounds have been subjected to harsh weathering from recent hurricanes, earthquake, heat and neglect. On my recent tour of the site, it became clear that the thoughtful initiatives being carried out to repair damage in the main building, its various outhouses and gardens make the project an exemplary model for the potential of heritage conservation in unifying communities and improving societal issues.
Situated in the capital of St. John’s, Government House was established as a Parsonage and became the official residence of Antigua and Barbuda’s Governor General in 1800. Anne Jonas, Assistant to the Governor General and integral to the house and project, began the tour by noting various photographic and decorative souvenirs of the Governor General’s role as representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Head of State. The house displays its historic collection of silver and porcelain wares across the dining room, each delicate object stamped with the Government House’s own monogram. The substantial quality and condition of this collection seems a testament to the property’s thoughtful attitude towards the preservation of its heritage. Throughout the rest of the main interior, despite having various physical signs of decay and damage, the proud placing of furniture and decorative objects conveys the perseverance and opportunity the restoration project brings.
The house’s dedication to social improvement was highlighted in the conservation taking place in the grounds; locally incarcerated people are helping with the project and were working in the gardens during the visit. They have learnt new skills in restoration and construction, providing them with the opportunity to be in the fresh air, re-integrate and contribute usefully to society. These skills include preparing and planting the gardens, intended as a method of therapy. The gardens feature a variety of plants, such as tomatoes and sweet potatoes, which staff at the house often take home and cook with, as well as medicinal plants and those of historical significance to Antigua.
We discussed the masonry workshop they had participated in, which involved meticulously hand-chiseling and cleaning collections of bricks from the outhouses one by one over a year, each separated into piles according to colour for reconstruction. This was a significant part of the exterior project; the bricks previously made up the former servants’ quarters, with one of the largest slave rooms to exist. Anne explained how research had shown that the yellow bricks on the exterior of the buildings and red on the interior indicated its inhabitants once had the opportunity to choose part of the decoration, and the restoration is set to maintain this interesting historical feature.
Several further initiatives will be set in motion as part of the restoration, such as providing training and educational opportunities for school children, installing an outside stage in the gardens for artistic performances and creating a history museum and outside café. These plans are designed to be inclusive of society and provide a meeting place for the community. The day before my visit was Watch Day for the site, where a series of talks on heritage and artistic performances filled the house, involving national and international musicians and students. This included an exhibition of the work of artists who will represent Antigua at the next Venice Biennale, where colourful costumes were hung across the rooms symbolising the power of carnival as resistance. My visit to Government House highlighted the strong sense of inclusivity at the core of the project, with the desire to teach and pass on heritage skills and draw together Caribbean expertise underpinning each aspect of the conservation. The innovation and thoughtfulness in these initiatives contribute to Government House’s unique approach to heritage solutions, and confirm the extent of positive impact they can have on communities.