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VIAC History

Can cultural heritage be an economic driver in the U.S. Virgin Islands?

It is one of the essential questions behind the In Search of Identity Project, which commenced in 2015, when legislation to provide seed funding from the Virgin Islands was introduced in the Virgin Islands Legislature by then Senate President Myron Jackson. An appropriation to the designated project fiduciary, St. Croix Foundation, followed and together with seed money from the Danish NGO BYFO Historic Houses of Denmark, an historic collaboration began.

St. Croix student in the Danish Apprenticeship Program which ran from 2002 – 2006. During this five year collaboration between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Denmark, it was determined that Virgin Islands craftsmen should receive highly skilled training in architecture, history and entrepreneurship. The program is a forerunner to VIAC.

On September 29, 2016, former Commissioner of the Department of Public Works Gustav James and former Commissioner of Property and Procurement Randolph Bennett signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Birthe Iuel, President of BYFO, Denmark launching the In Search of Identity Project as a Centennial Legacy project between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Denmark to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States in 1917. 

For 250 years prior to the transfer, the Virgin Islands were the sugar colony of Denmark, which used enslaved labor from Ghana and other African nation states to create much of its wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The project developed as the opening dialogue on the issue of restorative justice, where the shared history of colonialism and slavery could be addressed in the 21st century through a creative vehicle that would utilize the resources and expertise of Denmark, Africa and the Virgin Islands in a cultural economic development project which could address current issues in a substantial and meaningful way.

Estimated at $20 to $30 million, (10 million to be raised in Denmark and 10 to 20 million to be raised in the U.S. and the Virgin Islands) the project developed from community town hall meetings and town planning charrettes/competitions executed by the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority (VIEDA) Enterprise Zone Division. It is designed to develop cultural economic development and tourism corridors in the towns of Christiansted, St. Croix and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.  Based on revitalized selected town plans, the project, is conceived to impact education, history, culture, and economic development. It will create major cultural tourism attractions on each island and provide small business opportunities for local entrepreneurs.  It will foster cultural continuity and greater dialogue and discovery for Virgin Islands and Caribbean people around the questions of identity.  In full development, it will also address the issues of energy, sustainability, climate change and technology as we imagine the Virgin Islands future in the 21st century and beyond.

The project is spearheaded by three non-profits, created to facilitate the partnership between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Denmark. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, two non-profits, each in conjunction with fiduciary partner, the St. Croix Foundation, are developing education, cultural tourism entities that reflect the history, culture and arts of the islands, while at the same time serving as enhancements to the tourism product and economic development drivers in the towns that provide small business opportunities for residents.  In Denmark, the third non-profit manages the collaboration on architecture, curriculum, education, fundraising and public relations from that country.

On St. Croix, The Virgin Islands Architecture Center for Built Heritage and Crafts, Inc. (VIAC) is developing the Old Barracks property on Hospital Street, Christiansted as an urban campus and education lab within the architecture and historic building crafts traditions of the Virgin Islands, Denmark and West Africa.  VIAC recognizes that the built heritage of towns in the U.S. Virgin Islands reflect the design and craftsmanship of Danish, and Virgin Islands craftsmen.  The architectural center will train local, regional and international students by providing curriculum, internships and career pathways that both pay tribute to tradition and innovate, anticipate and plan for current and future needs.

In 2016, two student groups from The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and the School of Architecture in Aarhus, financed by the BYFO Association of Owners of Historic Houses in Denmark, studied, measured and investigated the two historic sites and created a complete set of drawings for the transformation of the two historic sites.

The Virgin Islands Museum, Civic and Cultural Center, St. Thomas, Inc. is developing the historic J. Antonio Jarvis School Complex in Charlotte Amalie into a School for Arts and Culture. The adjacent lots of the complex, which will comprise the Cultural Corridor, will provide a campus for supporting activities. It will contain a modern Cultural/Civic Center and Museum that will feature the art, history and culture of the U.S. Virgin Islands.  It will provide artists, artisans, tradition bearers, cultural practitioners, storytellers, musicians, dancers, folkloric groups, and the community a venue to express, share and cultivate traditions, wisdom, art and talents.  The Jarvis School will provide classroom settings for Arts and Enrichment and Cultural Education. The Jarvis School will provide classroom settings for the advancement of the arts and cultural education.  The Museum will provide a historic and modern chronology of the history and culture of the Virgin Islands, exhibition spaces for collections, art and cultural exhibitions, public areas, gift shop, lecture hall/theater and restaurant.

The Association of Owners of Historic Houses (BYFO) in Denmark, through its members on the Board of Directors, is the collaborating entity working with the Virgin Islands non-profits, providing resources, expertise and funding.

While the In Search of Identity project is being developed and administered by the non-profit community in the U.S. Virgin Islands, from its inception, the U.S. Virgin Islands government has been a key player and has helped move this project forward.  The properties in question, the Old Barracks in Christiansted, St. Croix and the Danish Hospital/Jarvis School in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas are both properties of the Virgin Islands Department of Education.  The town plans, which were community developed and approved were an initiative of the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority.  Seed money for the initiation of this project was provided through an appropriation of the Virgin Islands Legislature. The development of this project is an opportunity for the Virgin Islands to further the collaboration and utilize existing cultural and historical assets to energize future economic development and growth in two Virgin Islands towns.  It is an opportunity to develop assets for cultural and heritage tourism initiatives and foster development through education, training, entrepreneurship and economic development.

Aerial photo of Christiansted town.


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