The annual Junkanoo festival in the Bahamas is regarded as “the ultimate national symbol,” representative of Bahamian sovereignty and culture. A festival that originated from Bahamian slaves, Junkanoo has evolved into a popular commercial and cultural event that features extravagant, crépe-paper costumes. This paper analyzes the role of the commodified Junkanoo costume in constructing a Bahamian national and cultural identity. Specifically, it analyzes the history and policies of the National Junkanoo Museum, the first institution to display the costumes outside their performative context.
Through a interdisciplinary approach that incorporates methodologies from art history, sociology, and museum studies, I argue that Junkanoo serves a commercial purpose, which the National Junkanoo Museum perpetuates by displaying the costumes for touristic consumption. My thesis is based on three separate grounds of analysis. First, I examine the festival’s hybrid and dynamic nature by analyzing external factors that influenced Junkanoo’s development. Notably, I consider the Ministry of Tourism and the Bahamian Development Board’s involvement and administration of the parade, which significantly impacted the costumes’ iconography, materiality, and ephemerality. Next, I view the National Junkanoo Museum within the context of other Caribbean Museums to conclude that the institution encounters similar challenges to its neighbors, which include reconciling the museum’s nationalistic intentions with its objectives to bolster cultural tourism.
Finally, I demonstrate how the National Junkanoo Museum diverges from standard museum practice in order to augment the country’s fledging heritage industry. Instead of assembling a permanent collection, the museum operates as a non-collecting institution by exhibiting the costumes only on an annual basis and then returning the objects to the Junkanoo artists who proceed to dismantle and recycle their costumes. The museum’s exhibition policy reflects the artists’ habit of abandoning their costumes immediately following the parade. However, I contend that the National Junkanoo Museum’s use of nostalgia as a museum epistemology is less about an effort to restore the costumes’ traditional ephemerality, than it is an indication of the pervasiveness of the tourism industry in formulating a Bahamian national and cultural identity. Junkanoo’s economic potential is dependent on the perception of the festival as an identifiable, authentic Bahamian product, which the government facilitates by promoting the costumes as national symbols of Bahamian culture and appropriating them into a national museum system.