Making Room for Memory: The Re-Inauguration of Chile’s Memory and Human Rights Museum

Research in Chile - CLACS at NYU
The photograph that appears in this snapshot is by Hector López. “Catedral de Santiago: Homenaje a los Detenidos Desaparecidos.”
I came to Chile this summer to complete ethnographic research on the role that the photographic image plays in present day Chilean memory debates. More specifically, I came to Santiago to observe and document the many way in which Chile’s newly opened Memory and Human Rights Museum employs photographs – be it as a visual support, a didactic tool, or an archival document – to narrate and give voice to the country’s still recent and contentious violent past. The Museum itself aims to create a space, in which the human rights violations falling between the golpe de estado on September 11, 1973 and the return of democracy in 1989, can be carefully documented and displayed so that the national public can learn about a past that is often times forgotten as the country’s history moves forward. The opening of this institution is culturally, politically, and historically important as it marks the creation of the first national museum space dedicated to the dictatorship period. Of similar significance is the fact that the Museum’s initial inauguration happened only days before the right-leaning candidate, Sebastián Piñera won the presidential election. With the left-leaning political alliance, the Concertación, having governed the country since the 1989 democratic transition, the election of Piñera marks the first democratic election of a right-leaning candidate in post-dictatorship Chile. As a result, the election of Piñera has pushed memory debates back into the limelight of national disputes over not only how the past should be remembered, but also regarding how human rights should be protected.

As a result of damages caused by the recent earthquake, the Museum was forced to temporarily close its doors in March of this year, and it was only this past Saturday that Museum was re-opened to the public. As a result, much of my research during the last two weeks has consisted in the collection of interviews with the photographers who worked for the opposition magazines of the 1980s (Asociación de los Fotográfos Independientes), with members of the academic community who actively participate in the study of the dictatorship and its aftermath, and with students who have either visited the Museum or who have taken an active interest in the debates surrounding its inauguration. In light of the Museum’s temporary closure, most of these interviews have been detailed discussions about the significance of the institution’s aperture in a period when the country’s dichotomous left-right political environment seems to be facing a crisis that demands that has drawn attention to the violent past of the dictatorship while also demanding that the period be revisited and reexamined.

In these interviews as well as in the public media forums, such as newspapers, online blogs, and radio commentary, that I have been tracking, the debates about how the Museum narrates the past seems to lose importance in light of questions about what the Museum itself fails to narrate and display. In other words, debates over the Museum’s institutional objectives and content are more focused on what the Museum fails to include rather than on the details that are presented in the audiovisual, graphic, textual, and image-based displays that line the Museum’s walls, as well as in the documents, images, and objects that are housed in the Museum’s archive. Before I was able to actually enter the Museum, it seemed clear that its inauguration had sparked heated debates and controversial dialogue about how the past should be represented. In particular, debates over the histories that the Museum publically includes and/or excludes, about what rights count as human rights (for example, the Museum does not include information on the human rights abuses suffered by the Mapuche before, during, and after the dictatorship), and about the terms and conditions under which museum objects were requested and donated, as well as how they are now being archived, have been particularly prominent across the left-right divide. Finally, discussions about whether or not the Museum constitutes an educational enterprise or a political project are becoming contested arenas of public debate, in which politics, the past, and memory seem to collide and overlap.

My first visit to the Museum was this past Saturday when it was re-opened to the public. Throughout the Museum, photographic images play an important role in providing information, in linking different key concepts about the dictatorship and its aftermath, and in weaving together the past and the present. As my project turns more toward the Museum space and its use of photographic supports, I keep returning to the same questions: in the creation of an institution dedicated to the preservation of the past and to the prevention of repeating the human rights violations committed during that past, what elements of memory work distinguish the museum form a memorial? Can a memory and human rights museum be both and educational institution and a place of personal remembrance? Where do ideas about individual and collective experience with disappearance, torture, and censorship find room to emerge and coexist? It may be too soon to really unpack the many different opinions regarding the Museum and its ability to reach out to generations far removed from the political violence experienced during the dictatorship. However, I do think that in subsequent visits to the Museum and in future conversations with different people involved in its creation, design, and use will help to highlight the ways in which this institution is situating memory as an important, national practice. With regard to this objective, the inclusion and exclusion of particular memories, objects, images, and events will be an integral part of understanding how the past is being created in the present.

In the upcoming days and weeks, I will interview key museum players regarding the history of the Museum, its educational objectives, and its role in Chilean society. I will also be speaking with those who work specifically with the Museum’s collection of objects and images and those who participated in the design of the exhibition layout and the use of photographic visual supports in the creation displays. My hope is that these interviews will help me unpack the role that photographs play within the Museum, while also putting those objectives in dialogue with the public debates circulating within the public media. In addition, I hope to examine the ways in which images and objects – both those that are displayed and those that are not – become sites of political debate regarding multiple memory struggles for different members of the Chilean public. The extent to which the Museum is able to create room for the construction of new ways of remembering the past may in fact be very much linked to the kind of environment that is created with particular images and objects. In sum, I have a lot to think about and much more to see before I return home.

Posted by Lee Elizabeth Douglas – PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

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