Collecting and Storing the Past: Objects, Photographs, and the Creation of Chile’s Memory and Human Rights Museum

Memory Museum - Chile - CLACS ResearchDuring the last two weeks of my time in Santiago, my research on Chile’s Memory and Human Rights Museum has covered some exciting, new ground. Interviews with key Museum players – specifically those who have participated in the collection of Museum objects and images – have uncovered a new layer of political complexity, while informal meetings with local researchers has introduced me to a still-emerging set of public debates regarding both the functioning of this institution and its political significance in post-dictatorship Chile.

The images and objects that make up the Museum’s collection – including those that are displayed and those that are kept stored in the Museum’s archive – have all been voluntarily donated to the Museum. From the Museum’s perspective, this process of donating personal objects that bear both individual and collective significance as relics of the past is an integral part of the Museum’s ongoing memory work. The act of donating is not only the process through which the Museum collects and stores the past; it is also a process through which individuals can participate in the construction of that past. The donation of objects, therefore, is as much about the immaterial, personal, and emotional processes that accompany the giving and leaving of things as it is about the historical significance of each material object that is placed there. In outlining an institutional objective that includes the collection and storage of material objects and immaterial personal responses, the Museum has opted to serve as a bridge between the past and present and to treat memory as an ongoing social process in the here and now. At the same time, however, it has also established a museological goal – the collection, catalogization, and the storage of intangible emotions – that requires close attention be paid not only to what the Museum exhibits but also the function that it bears as a memory space.

The subject of donation has also been the catalyst for a series of heated debates regarding derechos de autor and derechos de copia. While the Museum remains dedicated to preserving the privacy and the wishes of those who donate images and objects, it must also create its own set of rules regarding copyright, the degree to which the image/object will be viewed publicly, and the kind of access that will be granted for public use of the image/object. In other words, the Museum’s dedication to its donation-only policy of collecting and storing images and objects has sparked heated debates about who owns the relics of the past, who should have access to these objects, and how these objects will function socially and politically both today and in the future.

While I am still mulling over the implications of a donation-only Museum collection strategy, I think that it is safe to say that the processes through which material references to the past are collected, catalogued, and stored are an arena in which new memory debates are emerging. Questions regarding access, visibility, and ownership seem to exist in a state of constant conflict within the museum space, thus transforming the Museum itself into an institutional arena in which rights to the past must be negotiated, worked out, and defined.

My time in Santiago has been both productive and intriguing, and I most definitely think that this Museum deserves much attention as Chile embraces a new era of memory debates. Despite the Museum’s short period of existence, the space that it inhabits and the images and objects that it collects and stores have become a new site for decisions to be made regarding how the past will be narrated. With youth generations who are now decades removed from the dictatorship period constituting the Museum’s largest target audience, what is seen and not seen, what is made public and what stays within the walls of the Museum’s archives will be key arenas of negotiation over the country’s recent past.

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

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