Sitting adjacent to the present Governor's residence, which was constructed in 2003 and designed to be architecturally similar, the venerable "older sister" received a makeover that has kept her in good standing. This has afforded the public a chance to view through exhibitions and archives – a bit of what "once was."
Although you can tour on your own, a guided tour is the recommended way to explore Old Government House, which is open on weekdays and on special requests for groups on weekends. Dora Scatliffe, a BVIslander and knowledgeable guide, is also the overseer of the museum gift shop, (a place you will want to pick up some items before leaving). She is brimming with interesting historical anecdotes you may not see posted along with the exhibits.
Entrance to the house is through a side door off the driveway on the west side rather than through the more formal front entrance way. This brings you into a foyer area next to the gift shop and leads to the first room of historical interest, the museum room. Dora will point out the plaque in the foyer proudly displaying all the former governors since 1956 when the seat of government for the Overseas Territories moved from Antigua. Our present Governor W. Boyd McCleary is 15th in a succession of four-year terms. In a recent visit Dora looked up all the three-letter titles next to the governors' names, such as OBE, MBE, KBE (amongst others) and I learned a bit about what these honors meant as well as the role of the Governor in the Territory's affairs. A parliamentary democracy, the BVI has an elected House of Assembly, a Cabinet comprised of ministers appointed from the majority party and a Premier. The Governor, appointed by the Queen, is her personal representative, as well as Chairman of the Cabinet. He overseas Her Royal Majesty's Police Force and external security for the territory.
Along the hallway Dora pointed out photos that showed the remains of the first government house built in 1890 by the Crown's representative at the time and purchased at his retirement in 1894 as the first official Government House. Prior to this time the Queen's representatives, variously called commissioners then administrators, lived in their personal homes on various estates. A journal by then Governor Harwick's wife chronicling the devastating hurricane in 1924, still sits in what was once the pantry and now houses the museum room. "What may have saved this room" Dora commented, "are these still in tact three foot thick walls, around which the new structure was built." Many interesting artifacts are in cases throughout the room including the guest book with the strikingly similar autographs of the Queen Mother in 1964 followed by Queen Elizabeth in 1977.
The two other rooms of significance on the first floor include the living room with older antique pieces and furnishings reflecting the 1930s and the formal dining room with its stunning arch-framed murals of early life in the islands. These were the handiwork of the talented artist and well-known horticulturist, Margaret Barwick, (the wife of Governor David Barwick 1982-1986), who was also responsible for the extensive garden landscaping around the property.
A climb up the stairs from the front hall leads to the second floor (reopened in December 2006) with the Library and Reading room, a recently furnished bedroom, the Quaker Room (with exhibits of the Quaker influence in the territory) and the BVI Philatelic Society's permanent exhibition on loan – the Stamp Room, which contains the first BVI stamps issued in 1866 to the present. Long time BVI resident Jillian Dunlop has been instrumental in the furnishing of both the living room and bedroom. "You have to understand I had to use some creative imagination," she explained. "There is a framed picture in the downstairs hallway that I used to help create the 1930s era, which reflects the period of the second house. But all the governors had their own pieces, along with antiques and most rooms were a compilation of pieces from the Caribbean and Europe."
The last known member of the Royal Family to sleep in the house was Princess Margaret in 1972, though there is some ongoing debate as to whether this particular bedroom was the one she actually slept in. Other members of the Royal Family have visited the house though, in addition to Queen Elizabeth in 1966 and 1977, and Prince Philip and Prince Andrew have also passed through its doors.
Another area of note is the patio at the rear of the house, which is available for private receptions. From the patio visitors can access the gardens originally landscaped by Margaret Barwick.
It appears many of the former governors have left their mark on Old Government House in terms of bequeathing mementos: Governor Savage left behind the plumed pith helmet and the formal uniform for inspection of Her Majesty's Royal Police Force on display in the Museum Room, Governor McCann left a set of original china for the Dining Room and the Governor Peary, the previous governor, left behind a clock from his tour in India, now hanging on a wall in the front hallway.
In 2010 when the four year strategic plan for Old Government House Museum was unveiled, then Governor David Peary was quoted as saying: "Unless we understand our links to the many great achievements of the past, we have become in essence a very hollow society without a soul or for that matter without a future." It was over a decade ago in 1996, when Old Government House was deemed unsafe for future habitation, that a loud cry from a group of preservationists saved the building from destruction.
Open weekdays from 9am to 3pm - $3 Adult admission fee Under 12 years- Free. Visit the Old Government House Museum's website for more information.