Travel

New museums focus on darker sides of history: repression, torture, slavery, racism

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile

SANTIAGO, Chile — Affluent young professionals stream through the modern, glass-sheathed entrances of the Quinta Normal metro station or duck into the peaceful park behind them to escape busy Avenida Matucana.

Just across the street, a dark form looms above a recessed courtyard as if a counterpoint to this cheerful bustle of the biggest city in South America’s most stable and prosperous democracy.

It’s El Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, or the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which chronicles the abuses of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that tyrannized this country from 1973 to 1990. More than 27,000 people were tortured, 2,279 executed, and 200,000 exiled.

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“To understand the new democracy in Chile is totally connected with the dictatorship,” said Francisco San Martín Sepúlveda, the museum’s senior guide, who wore a ponytail under a scally cap and a Superman T-shirt beneath a zippered hoodie. “For such a long time in Chile people have denied those crimes.”

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From Santiago to Berlin to Johannesburg, and in seemingly unlikely places such as Winnipeg and Liverpool, new museums like this are refocusing attention on the darker sides of history: repression, torture, slavery, racism.

“Museums today take our social responsibilities very seriously and there’s an increasing expectation that we do so,” said Francoise McClafferty, coordinator of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums.

The federation is based in Liverpool, where an international slavery museum opened in 2007. The museum in Santiago opened in 2010, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in 2001, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in 2014. The new Wall Museum East Side Gallery in Berlin, which tells the story of the Cold War, debuted in 2016.

“This is absolutely something that’s becoming more and more common, really across the globe,” said Jodi Giesbrecht, the head curator of the Winnipeg museum, which covers such issues as the treatment of indigenous people.

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“In a lot of ways museums are playing a little bit of catch up to the rest of the society, taking into consideration the vast advances that have been made in terms of social movements and human and political rights,” Giesbrecht said. “Those stories have only just begun to be addressed in museums.”

El Museo de la Memoria in Santiago begins with a poem inscribed near the entrance by the songwriter Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez, who was arrested shortly after the Chilean coup began on Sept. 11, 1973, and held in a sport stadium with other political prisoners. “There are five thousand of us here,” Jara wrote before being executed. “I wonder how many we are in all in the cities and in the whole country?”

The exhibits include letters, sketches, and objects made by political detainees, including a cross crafted of barbed wire, video interviews with survivors, protest posters, the door of a detention center where political prisoners were tortured, and unclassified American documents about such things as who was responsible for the assassination in Washington of a Pinochet opponent. Framed photos of those killed cover a wall that spans three levels.

Visitors “are quite shocked to be confronted with the number of victims or that these kinds of crimes included students and children,” San Martín said.

He added, pointedly, that the museum is about more than just Chile. It exemplifies the dangers faced by women, minorities, immigrants, refugees, and indigenous groups worldwide. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is inscribed in the courtyard.

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Locations like these remind visitors of “the need for constant vigilance,” said Giesbrecht. “There’s always a lesson to be taken.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.