Carnival doesn't have to end today
The sights, sounds and atmosphere of the biggest carnival outside Rio de Janeiro will endure only in the memories of the masqueraders and spectators, and in snapshots taken by a few amateur photographers. The music and pageantry of previous years, meanwhile, live on just as hazy recollections.
Astonishing though it seems, this annual explosion of creativity and folk art is not immortalised in any museum or archive. There is no official record of an event that spans more than three decades and is now firmly embedded in the nation's cultural life. Bits and pieces have been conserved by a handful of individuals. The Museum of London has accumulated a few things, piecemeal. But there exists no comprehensive collection of photographs and video footage that capture the spectacle and exuberance of Carnival, of audio tapes that record its musical heartbeat, of leaflets and posters that document its history.
And most lamentable, the costumes that are the dazzling focal point of the parade have not been preserved. These elaborate and fantastical confections, months in the design and making, are works of art and are richly evocative of Carnival's Caribbean roots. Yet they are on show for just two days over the August Bank Holiday and then stored in warehouses, by the 50 mas (costume) bands, to be dismantled and recycled in future years.
Recently the Museum of London hosted a conference on the question of establishing a Carnival archive. The participants - who included the Notting Hill organisers as well as members of mas and music bands and representatives of the London Arts Board - were enthusiastic, and decided that a survey was needed to establish what had been kept over the decades.
The wonder is that the idea has never come up before. Carnival, after all, is a popular art form at which Britain excels. Notting Hill not only attracts more than two million visitors over two days, but it is acknowledged as one of the top three carnivals - together with Rio and Trinidad - in the quality of its performance art and creative talent.
Notting Hill is also distinctive in being the most cosmopolitan of carnivals. The dancers, musicians and masqueraders hail from around the world: this year, there are groups from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, as well as African and South American countries.
One reason for the failure to establish an archive before now must be the ambivalence that characterises public perceptions of Carnival. In the early years, when a few thousand Trinidadians paraded along Portobello Road in west London accompanied by steel drums, it was regarded as a quaint folk festival, at best. After the riot between black youths and police in 1976, it became a metaphor for violence and thereafter was seen principally as a public order problem. Despite the growth of Carnival into a major international event that reflects London's rich cultural diversity, both these impressions linger. Carnival also represents much that is alien to the British temperament: large crowds of people taking over the streets, ethnic communities giving powerful expression to their artistic identity, noise, colour, anarchy, vibrancy.
Other cities recognise the value of Carnival. Rio and Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, have major exhibits in their national museums. New Orleans has no fewer than four museums devoted to its Mardi Gras.
The Museum of London is willing to house a Notting Hill archive, but a dedicated space would be preferable. The problem, of course, is funding. This year's official Carnival guide contains a goodwill message from Chris Smith, MP. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport should put his money where his mouth is. A Carnival centre would be a project to match his grandiose title.
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