SANTIAGO, Chile — Walk down a flight of stairs and open the door. The door closes behind you and you find yourself in a dark room. You disappear; you can’t leave the space and don’t have a point of reference. A few minutes later, 500 silhouettes of the heads of 500 different people throw a diffuse white light — you find yourself gathered with people, some dead, some disappeared, and some others still alive. You are one of the victims of Chile’s dictatorial period. Finally the door opens and you go outside, warmed again by the natural light of the sun. You have just visited the installation “Geometria de la Conciencia” (“Geometry of the Conscience”) by Alfredo Jaar. You are in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights of Santiago, Chile.
This museum memorializes the victims of the human rights violations that took place between 1973 and 1990 under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Through documentary artifacts like videos, testimonies, objects, and letters, the visitor can discover how the military killed, tortured, made disappear, and controlled the citizens of the country for almost 30 years. The events it documents are pity-inspiring, but memorial useums like this (there are many similar museums in countries all over the world) are neccesary to understand the consequences of history. History itself was a victim of the state’s erasure machine.
In the main hall, there’s a big wall where information about other countries with repressive goverments are displayed. Many of them, once their particular terror ended, organized “Truth Commissions” that worked in order to clear up the facts and to repair the damage done to those involved. In reality, these commissions often have little executive power because many governments clean their hands after atrocities; in fact, many governments still linger in the shadow of repression, authoritarianism, and lack of freedom. Sometimes, it’s more than just a shadow.
One of the best contributions of the controversial museum are its temporary exhibitions. We have here a perfect demostration of the power of art as an ideal way to confront collective pain. These include exhibitions of artists like Monica Weiss, Arturo Duclos, and Marcelo Brodsky, Gonzalo Díaz or Fernando Botero, presenting projects that connect universal values with local realities. These poetic therapies revitalize the concept of political art.
For those who have no memory of the actual events, this symbolic and physical place will help them to remember the coup d’state and the death of President Salvador Allende 30 years ago. Visitors will see a bed where many were tortured, will hear the words of a victim son, will feel the fear of the survivors, and, if so desired, light a candle for those who cannot visit the building.
For those who have no memory, who deny this atrocities, who still celebrate the actions of Pinochet (an homage took place just last year), who criticize the construction of the museum, like Magdalena Krebs, the Director of Libraries, Archives and Museums of Chile, who argue that the crimes committed through those years have an explanation that is not displayed. Does a genocide needs a justification? Is there any possible justification?
Yet those who have a voluntary case of Alzheimer’s will not enter this museum. It is contradictory, but it is a reality. Everyone knows what is in this place. If you go deeper, you can discuss other issues that are questionable, like if the Museum was built for electoral gains or if the voice and the word of the victims has been truly counted. These are relevant issues. Other doubts go on in this direction: Is it logical to show these atrocities in a clean and aesthetic way, as the artist Jota Castro claimed when he visited the Museum of Memory? But as I’ve said, above all these debates, the museum is neccesary, most of all in Chile, a country that still carries a surfeit of trauma.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is located at Matucana 501 in Santiago, Chile.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.