For many universities, the past is firmly the past. The symbolic objects in the university museum or those rolled out for ceremonial occasions; the stories and photographs and recordings are patently artifacts – aging, perhaps yellowing, or of a style of one or many yesteryears.
The University of the West Indies counts its past in decades or half centuries. It has been fortunate to still have, at annual Founders Week ceremonies, a strong-voiced though decreasing number of representatives of the pioneering group of students who sat in the first classes in October 1948.
The Museum has been fortunate to have had visits from some of those self-styled Pioneers and those that followed shortly after. Four members of that group are on audio tape in the University Archives’ Library of the Spoken Word, talking about their early experiences. Those are doctors Owen Minott, Keith McKenzie, Muriel Lowe and Don Christian. Drs McKenzie and Minott were among the early students participating at the museum’s Freeze Frame exhibition in February 2014. And there have been several opportunities to talk with Dr Owen Minott about his black & white photographs which captured some of the early campus landscape, characters and moments.
Dr Minott, who died September 25, was a strong thread from the past to the present, through his memories as well as through his images – some of which he described but which are lost to us. He recalled, for instance, a panoramic view of the widely-spread campus, which he took from the hillside behind the Principal’s house. The view was too wide for his lens, and he used a tree as the point of natural joining between the view to the right and the view to the left. He also recalled giving a box of his early photos to Sir Raymond Priestley, Arctic explorer, Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, a member of the Irvine Committee which recommended the establishment of the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI), and a stalwart supporter of the early institution. The panorama was lost in a hurricane, and the box of photos has never been traced.
But many of Dr Minott’s early photos do remain, including some after he became one of the first medical students to graduate and went on to be an early Houseman at the brand new University Hospital – the UCWI’s purpose-built teaching hospital where he would later be in charge of the Casualty Department. (The medical students pursued a five-year MBBS and were therefore preceded, as UCWI graduates, by the first Natural Science students, whose three-year programmes started the year after the first Med students).
Time is inexorable. Another early UWI student, the late poet and playright Dennis Scott, wrote famously of Father Time, “a ole ole man” who will eventually “spin web roun’ you’ house an’ creep inside…” Yet some things, like those photos and interviews, continue on and become artifacts that recall times increasingly far in the past; artifacts that can be interpreted variously for the ever-changing but continuous present.