Healing, Construction, and Preservation of Memory: An investigation of the creation of a memorial museum in the ESMA

It has been almost two weeks since I got to Buenos Aires. After spending the first few days familiarizing myself with the city and the transportation system – a work in progress – I began to contact and meet with various people involved in the creation of the memorial in the ESMA. As a former clandestine detention center (CDC), the use of the site is the subject of much contention and debate.

One of the first meetings that we had was with Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky and Argentine Historian/Archivist Horacio Tarcus. The meeting took place at NYU Buenos Aires. It was a great introduction to my investigation here in Argentina, with both speakers addressing the issues of information, scholarship, the archive and memory of the most recent dictatorship, although from very different angles.

Tarcus’ explanation of the “Argentine Paradox” helped me to understand, and to brace myself, for the challenges associated with collecting information in Argentina. The perceived modernity of Argentina is attractive to many scholars, but the residual effects of an authoritarian government have made information highly valuable, and its distribution almost impossible.

This optimistic observation has not impeded my ability to speak with people thus far, however. It seems that when it comes to human rights activists here in Buenos Aires, they idea is to spread information in any way, to anyone who will listen. The eagerness of people such as Carmen Lapaco, of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora, to tell their personal stories and to discuss the state of memory and justice in Argentina today is encouraging.

A tour of the ESMA last Friday also helped to consolidate the various explanations of the state that the site is in that I had gathered online before arriving. The proximity of the former CDC to the street and surrounding neighborhood came as a shock. Tom Abercrombie observed that when he had passed by in the early 80’s (when the ESMA was still being used by the dictatorship) there had been signs posted threatening to shoot anyone who stopped in front of the gates. But nonetheless the site is visible and there is little doubt that most people knew what it was being used for.

The tour itself traced the desaparecidos’ experiences. From entering at the gates, through passing the security checkpoint, being taken into the basement where the torture sessions occurred, and walking through the spaces where prisoners where kept between being forced to do labor for the navy and being tortured, the guide narrated the experience using the testimonies of survivors to give us an idea of their thoughts and feelings, and the conditions they were forced to live through.

I have started to consider the performative aspects of the ESMA tour experience and am looking at Diana Taylor’s work to try and frame it out. It’s a work in progress, which will require me to return at least once or twice more to the ESMA while continuing my investigatory interviews. I am really interested in finding out whether the guides allow the narratives they give to be influenced by the people on their tours, how the testimonies of the survivors were selected, and the progress of the commission in charge of the memorial.

Christine Weible
MA Candidate, CLACS and Museum Studies

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