Feature Stories

USF Professor of Anthropology Christian Wells received a crucial Research that Matters grant to help fulfill a community’s dream of building a collection for a new cultural museum

By Bonnie Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications

Cultural tourists are becoming increasingly selective as they make their travel plans, seeking out "undiscovered" regions in search of what they hope is a little piece of paradise. In the wake of this growing movement, a small village community like Seine Bight in Belize has become a highly sought after destination for adventure seeking travelers. Yet, University of South Florida anthropologist Christian Wells has found there is a bittersweet side to this rise in tourism, because the community itself does not always reap the benefits of this increased exposure.

Young people living in the coastal region of the Placencia Peninsula in Belize

Young people living in the coastal region of the Placencia Peninsula in Belize.

Research that Matters grant from the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. Wells is using the community-engaged research grant to develop his work in Seine Bight.

Wells first visited Seine Bight while conducting research in Belize during the summer of 2012. He was with his fellow anthropology faculty Rebecca Zarger and Linda Whiteford, and they spotted signs near their hotel announcing a community meeting about wastewater treatment. The three were working together on a National Science Foundation grant to study the complicated way in which water quality and energy use are interdependent; and they agreed that the meeting would be a great opportunity to learn more about water issues impacting the local community.

"We just listened at the meeting," said Wells, "and then we quickly went back to our hotel room and wrote down everything we could remember." The following day, they returned and began speaking to community leaders, some of whom were skeptical about why researchers from Tampa would be interested in their wastewater treatment.

"But that's what anthropologists do, we make relationships and connections and we listen," said Wells.

Applied anthropologists often adhere to the community engagement principle of doing research with a community (rather than on it), so during their meetings, they asked what the community needed most. "Basically, it boiled down to a pride of place," Wells concluded.

The village council leaders said they were most concerned with a "growing lack of pride in the community," and they did not want outsiders coming and defining their culture and tourism for them. The Seine Bight community wanted to reassert their cultural heritage and take ownership over how it would be shared with visitors.

"The community is trying to embrace tourism as a way to promote development, infrastructure, and economic security" but not at the expense of its cultural and communal identity, said Wells. Often, he continued, tourism can lead to "uneven development." He said, "We can point to the USF area itself as a case of uneven development. What we want to do is help communities contend with those kinds of issues on their terms."

Professor Christian Wells, recipient of an OCEP Research that Matters grant, working with young people in Seine Bight.

Professor Christian Wells, recipient of an OCEP Research that Matters grant, working with young people in Seine Bight.

In order to help the community achieve its goal, Wells remembered thinking, "there's no way we can build a museum, how about a room?"

Yet the village leaders were not satisfied with a resource room – they wanted to create a new museum that would honor their cultural heritage for generations to come. So, Wells and Eric Koenig, a doctoral student in anthropology, found a way to expand the project to meet the community's needs.

They received funding from the InHerit Foundation (Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present) for capital support to design the museum as well as exhibitions and heritage education and outreach programs. Then, OCEP awarded Wells and Koenig a Research that Matters grant to further the development of heritage education, provide collaborative research training for the community, and to curate exhibitions for the museum.

USF graduate student Eric Koenig standing onsite at the museum structure.

USF graduate student Eric Koenig and Sarita Garcia sell traditional Garifuna foods to raise construction funds for the future museum.

Koenig is assisting Sarita Garcia, Chair of the Seine Bight Reservoir to Museum Foundation, to raise additional funds for the construction of the museum. With this support from a variety of sources, Wells and Koenig are facilitating the Seine Bight community's dream of building their own museum, and construction is already underway.

The base of the museum is a water reservoir with historical significance. "It was the building where everyone in the area would gather for water," said Koenig. This is particularly meaningful because it was the study of water that first brought the USF researchers to the Placencia Peninsula almost four years ago. Wells and USF students have been returning every summer since 2013 to continue to contribute their time and effort to enhancing the lives of the local community members.

With the help of the OCEP grant, the team is also working with the National Institute of Culture and History in Belize, and partnering with a local primary school, St. Alfonsus, so that the teachers can provide heritage for their students, who are also helping develop future museum exhibits.

"The students are the ones that will inherit the museum, and through this project, they are developing a connection and pride that they will carry with them when they take over the maintenance and care of the museum." By involving young people in the process of creating the museum, they have a direct incentive to maintain the community's cultural heritage and share it with others for years to come.

Wells and Koenig are thrilled that the OCEP grant as well as the other financial assistance they have raised have enabled them to give back to the Seine Bight community in a very deep and meaningful way that will restore the sense of pride in this culturally rich community that many tourists may seek to discover. And, in this way, OCEP's Research that Matters grant program is having a global impact.