Old gaol graffiti is uncovered

The National Museum’s project to conserve handwriting found on the oldest building in the Museum complex, the old gaol, has reached a highpoint with the recent exposure of much more graffiti, including the drawing of a small bird.

Deciphering of the writing, first discovered at the museum last year, is still in process.

So far the area of writing that has been exposed following careful peeling away of limestone whitewash, paint and cement comprises about 19 lines, up to some 20 inches wide in places.

‘This is very a very exciting time for us,’ said Museum Acting Director Debra Barnes-Tabora, a view mirrored by Board Chair Harris McCoy, commenting on the sense of anticipation that the evolving project has created at the Museum.

‘Once the writings were detected, the board was aware that this was a major development for the Cayman Islands – one that could have an impact on our identity as a country while deepening our understanding of our history,’ he said. ‘So we are really excited that this project is evolving to be even larger than we had dared hope originally, and we are placing the full weight of the board behind its completion.’

Bringing the project forward with a further two-week attachment here in Cayman was Ms Elisa Serrano, professor of studies on Conservation and Restoration of Immoveable Objects at the Cuban Higher Institute of Arts.

Ms Serrano is a researcher, and specialist in conservation and restoration of paintings and murals on wood, canvas, ceramics and stone.

She has undergone postgraduate training in Florence, Italy; Andorra, Spain; and Colombia, and has 35 years’ experience in her field. Her achievements include the National Award for contributions to Cuban culture and recognition by the US National Heritage Trust for the quality of her work on restoration of Ernest Hemingway’s original writings on the walls of his former villa in Havana. She is UNESCO Chair on Conservation for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ms Serrano said that the research that she has designed and is carrying out at the National Museum has as its central objective the study of the walls of the old prison, and the recovery, conservation and investigation of the hidden writing.

‘The work I am carrying out on the old gaol is an archeological one, in order to identify the different layers that cover the stone walls,’ said Professor Serrano. ‘To uncover the writing, I am removing the different layers of superimposed lime, cement and paint.’

Sharing insights into the difficulty of the job of shaving away the layers of centuries-old wall-covering, Ms Serrano said that the location of the wall itself – oriented to the west – brings increased potential for damage.

Mortar was applied as part of early repair work to even out the wall surface, there are various layers of limestone whitewash and paint, and the wall was subjected to power washing in 1989 – interventions that would have impacted the survival and clarity of the writing.

Her work has to be painstaking, using magnifiers, a portable microscope and carefully evolved implements, to ensure that the writing does not sustain damage in the process.

Ms Serrano will be returning to Cayman to continue peeling away the outer layers to expose all remaining graffiti, on the same wall as well as possibly on one other wall.

She is already working at matching the original limestone wash so that the portions of the wall on which there is no graffiti can be restored to match its original.

Ms Serrano foresees that it may be necessary to secure the services of a graphologist to decipher the writing, given the effect of time and wear. She is working as well, she says, on a visual strategy, in line with conservation protocols, on how best to present the writings for public viewing.

She is also preparing a scientific report, the first stage of which will provide data for the other research project on the old gaol. Parallel to her Serrano’s research is interrelated work by Ms Isabel Rigol, a historical preservation architect, also of Cuba. Ms Rigol is designing and carrying out an historical investigation on the National Museum’s buildings and their historical roles over the year.

Ms Serrano notes that information from her work may ultimately re-write history, as it did with regard to the recovery and consolidation of writings found in the villa of writer Ernest Hemingway. In that case, the discovery of graffiti bearing a date related to an event in Hemmingway’s life sent biographers scrambling to re-write related portions.

Other than that very possible outcome for the Cayman project, there is also the spiritual element to what she does, she said.

Given that the building may have housed lepers at one point (as one source suggests) or prisoners – the ultimately deciphered writings will lend voice – albeit centuries later – to then marginalized or forgotten persons.

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