Monday, 25 November 2013

Places of memory in Santiago: Memory museum

Where better to start a tour of memory places in Chile than at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos? It's a large and striking site:

Alright, so in one sense it's a green, glass box but I don't mean that as a criticism at all. You walk down towards the entrance and it's impressive.

 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights features on an external wall:

The museum declares that it is "a school" and one positive thing I noticed while I was there was the many school groups. The first one I saw, the kids were quite young (pre-teens) and the teacher made them all sit on the floor and dictated a long lecture to them, telling them off when they asked her to repeat difficult words. They were perhaps too young, at least for that kind of visit. But there were groups of older teenagers who seemed very engaged.

There was also an external exhibition comparing the situation in many different countries:

Sadly you're not allowed to take photographs inside, which is a real shame, because the most striking feature for me is the huge wall of photographs of the disappeared reaching up across the entire space. There is also a point where you can stand and look out at it and locate individual names and faces.

On the ground floor various terminals show footage of the 1973 coup and its aftermath. As you move upstairs, different areas cover aspects like exiles and international solidarity, media coverage, and torture - including, chillingly, an electric shock device (made by General Electric - not suggesting they intended it to be used for that purpose!). There are also items made by prisoners and photographs of memorial sites throughout Chile.

The museum was quite busy when I was there on a Friday morning, which is really not always the case in Latin American museums. It was fascinating to see people engaging with the material. One guy was so absorbed in the video of the return to democracy and the "No" campaign (roughly the period covered in the recent film "No" starring Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal), he was watching it when I started looking round the floor and still there when I had finished.

The memory museum is free to enter and it is a large, slick site which must have been extremely expensive to build. While this is laudable, when I discussed the museum with Steven in Santiago, he expressed the opinion that it could be a bit more forthright in asking for donations and I completely agree. Many visitors could afford to give something and it is not mentioned or even really obvious how to do this (there's a slot in the front desk, or you can buy a catalogue for CLP 10,000 and this includes a donation; there should be catalogues in the shop but I had to ask for one to be brought up for me). It's one thing making your museum accessible and it's another not even gently directing people to the opportunity to support it.

Anyway, I think Chile really sets a standard here to which it will be interesting to compare, for example, the Lugar de la Memoria in Peru. One thing to note is that this is explicitly not a space where you will get some sort of pseudo-neutrality or weighing up of the pro- and anti-Pinochet factions as equal. As it states in the catalogue,
the task of building a memory must be guided by a moral compass; we must build a reading of the collective trauma that goes above and beyond what is evident, a history of victims and criminals, guilty and innocent. The goal in the museum's construction of memory is to become a space that assists the culture of human rights and democratic values in becoming the share ethical basis of our present and future coexistence. Only in this way can we empower our claim of NEVER AGAIN.

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