Memorial Museum, Santiago de Chile
Easily the most impressive memorial museum in South America, this relatively new institution in Santiago de Chile
chronicles and illustrates the dark era of the military coup, dictatorship and widespread human rights abuses during the Pinochet
Junta 1973-1990. It has to be the No. 1 must-do for any dark tourist visiting this city.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: For more on the historical background covered by the museum see below (under 'what there is to see') – and in general cf. Chile and Santiago.
Santiago's Memorial Museum, or Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos ('Museum of Memory and Human Rights') to give its full official name, is the newest and most elaborate in Chile's endeavours to properly confront the dark chapters of its 20th century history, i.e. in particular the Pinochet
era. It was a long struggle to get this far, though.
It was only in 2007, i.e. 17 years after the end of the dictatorship and Chile's "official" return to democracy, that then President Michelle Bachelet, herself once a detention and torture victim, at one point held at the infamous Villa Grimaldi
, announced the founding of such an institution. Competitions for the design of the museum as well as the building to house it were held over the following year, construction of the museum began in 2008 and was completed in 2009.
Bachelet herself officially opened the museum on 11 January 2010, shortly before the end of her term as president and thus just in time, as one might want to add – given that her conservative successor, Sebastian Pinera, would probably have been far less keen to get such a project finished so rapidly, if at all. His planned impositions of a watered-down schoolbook terminology about the Pinochet period are perhaps an indication … more concretely: he wanted the previous wording "military dictatorship" changed to merely "military government" … hello?!? Revisionism, anyone?!? But as things stand currently, Bachelet will be back for another term, following her renewed success in the 2013 elections.
The museum is certainly a success in almost every way. The modernity of the architectural design of the museum is nothing short of stunning – and would be the pride of any memorial museum in Europe. The exhibition inside does not fall short either. It's as impressive in its interior design and in the presentation of history ... although old Pinochet
devotees probably disagree, which would be neither surprising nor important. It is certainly the most state-of-the-art commodification of any Latin American junta history to date and could thus be a model for the entire continent to follow. Very commendable indeed.
What there is to see:
A lot! Even before you enter the museum, the building it is housed in already makes quite an impression. Not only is it big, the architecture is especially remarkable. The main part of the museum has the shape of an oblong, semi-transparent green block with lines cross-crossing over the sides. This block sits on top of concrete foundations on either side, which give way to triangular ponds. In between a plaza dips down a level including an open space under the green museum block. On a wall to the side of the slope down, the UN
's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is displayed in metal lettering. The open space under and around the museum is dubbed Plaza de la Memoria ('Memorial Square' – cultural events take place here). It is also down here that the main museum entrance is located.
Inside the atrium, beyond a rather oversized reception desk, the wall at the far end has a map of the world composed of photos representing human rights abuses around the globe. Beneath it, individual panels make reference to various countries in this respect, including Argentina
, East Timor
, El Salvador, South Africa
, Sri Lank
and dozens more – just to put the Chilean case into worldwide perspective.
Further along the corridor, plaques as well as an interactive screen, list all the memorials within Chile
that are in some way related to the dictatorship years and/or human rights violations during that time – a whopping 84 in total.
There are also a few artefacts on display down here already, including one of the iron crosses from the Patio 29 section in the Cementerio General,
where some of the "disappeared" were buried. This cross still bears the "NN" (no name) mark on it (while most of those at the site have meanwhile been identified).
You then ascend the stairs to the first part of the permanent museum exhibition proper. The scene is set by a large screen on which footage from the fateful day of the military coup on 11 September 1973 is shown, as well as snippets from international news about it. You see the familiar images of fighter planes bombing the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago
. You hear Allende
's voice, as well as Pinochet
's. I couldn't help but notice a striking difference in oratory skills here too – Allende, even though facing death in the presidential palace as it was being bombed, delivered a well-paced, intense and moving radio speech; General Pinochet, in contrast, gave a rather petulant sounding screeching proclamation on TV.
Reports about Allende's death included the presentation of the AK-47 (Kalashnikov) machine gun he allegedly used to shoot himself – the gun was a gift from Cuba
's Fidel Castro! Next to the screen, a glass display cabinet contains Allende's charred typewriter, retrieved from the ruins of the La Moneda palace, donated by the Allende Foundation.
Blocks with more screens (smaller ones) show various documentaries about the onset of the dictatorship that visitors can play individually and listen to the soundtrack on headphones – good quality ones, I noted, of a well-known and highly reputed make (not the cheap ones you often get in such museums!). Most of these documentaries are in Spanish only, but a few at least have English subtitles.
The next section is entitled "The End of the Rule of Law", and details aspects such as the use of the national stadium as a concentration camp, the closing of the National Congress (which was transferred to Valparaiso
by a Pinochet decree), masses of Chileans going into exile, and so forth. On yet another screen you can listen to a speech that Allende's widow gave before the UN General Assembly
in New York
The international reaction to the coup, and subsequent protest movements around the world, are also covered, including some material in English and German.
Loads of documents, photos and a few artefacts are on display, too many to describe in detail here. Most of the material is, again, in Spanish only, although at least some of the labelling is in English too.
One section is devoted to the operations of the DINA secret police abroad, especially the assassinations of General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires
and that of Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C.
(see Cementerio General
). The involvement of the USA
(through the CIA
) gets a mention too, here. On display is an unclassified State Department document, about "Operation Condor" and the political implications of the military dictatorships' "anti-terrorist" strategies as seen from a US perspective. While all this is historically/politically illuminating, a simple artefact such as the wristwatch Carlos Prats was wearing when he was assassinated, brings a more immediate, moving element into the overall impression.
A couple of other, larger artefacts on display warrant special mention: there's an original prison door, and, the largest item of them all, a whole watchtower. This, in fact, stands outside the museum, in a niche at the eastern end of the building, but can be seen from a balcony accessible from the exhibition space too.
By far the most heavy-duty part of the museum comes next, a separate section about the torture and disappearance or execution of political prisoners. A sign outside warns that this section is not recommended for children. And rightly so. This is indeed not for the faint-hearted:
On yet another large screen, testimonies by surviving victims of torture report in full detail the cruel proceedings applied (in Spanish with English subtitles). Gut-wrenching stuff – but I will refrain from relaying all the details here. Only the following shall suffice:
One specific and especially infamous technique employed by the DINA agents was that of using electric shocks – and this is even illustrated here through what must count as the most horrific concrete artefact in this section: a specimen of the so-called "grill". This is basically an ordinary iron bedstead onto which detainees were tied, then tortured by means of electro shockers originally designed for cattle. These, together with a battery that supplied the voltage, are displayed too. Silent, but deeply disturbing exhibits!
A map locates the many detention centres all over the country. Special reference is made to Chacabuco
, the Caravan of Death and the infamous Isla Dawson detention camp in Patagonia in the south of Chile
Also on display in this section are books on torture, letters by victims, pictures, and detainees' personal belongings such as sandals, jewellery, carvings, etc. ... all very reminiscent of many of the exhibitions at concentration camp
memorials in Germany
, I found.
One part in this section is specifically about ex-president Michelle Bachelet's father, who died under torture. This is perhaps a little heavy-handed and personal, given that the museum was largely a project brought on its way by President Bachelet herself. I can see this attracting some criticism. But overall, this most difficult section of the museum is quite effective and well-balanced – if tough to go through.
A section about the plight of children – many youngsters were also abducted and "disappeared" – finishes the exhibition on this floor (this section is perhaps also a bit on the deliberately tear-jerking side).
The remaining parts of the exhibition on the second floor focus more on the issues of resistance and its repression, as well as foreign support, in the years following the first (and most brutal) phase after the putsch, up to the end of the dictatorship in 1990.
The efforts of Roman Catholic Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez (see Santiago
) are pointed out, as are supportive campaigns in various European countries, e.g. in the GDR
, which also welcomed many exiled Chileans (and occasionally this ended in forging family ties, cf. Honecker
The ongoing raids by the military, and the especially despicable case of two students who were burned alive in 1986, are outlined, as is one assassination attempt on Pinochet – which he only narrowly survived … unlike the alleged perpetrators, who were soon after executed. It even remains unclear whether the accused had indeed been the real assassins. That wasn't so important, it seems.
The dominant feature in the design of the exhibition is a kind of balcony that opens up to one side and "hovers" over the floor below. It is surrounded by little illuminated perspex sticks that look like candles. In the centre stands a single touch screen where the names of all the victims of the dictatorship can be punched up. The huge wall opposite is covered with photos of these thousands of victims. It's a very impressive effect. A very open space, yet an oppressive effect of mourning at the same time.
Eventually, the main exhibition finishes, as one would expect, on the topic of the end of the dictatorship. Videos show jubilant people in the streets after the final plebiscite in 1990 resulted in a resounding 'no' to Pinochet
. However, the military had already arranged for their own immunity and fixed the future of the country largely on their terms through the constitution and an electoral system that to this day makes it practically impossible for smaller parties to gain any foothold in parliamentary politics. Chile's is one of those non-representational systems which has the same effect of favouring only the big parties as in the USA
. So the final jubilant tone of the exhibition does have a certain sour aftertaste too …
There is yet another floor above the permanent exhibition's rooms ... if you'd want to call them 'rooms' at all; the space is often rather open-plan – all very airy! Here, temporary exhibitions complement the main museum. At the time of my visit (January 2012) there were various works of art – some more symbolic than others – e.g. a heap of stones was meant to symbolize riotous demonstrations, while dozens of garments were hanging from the wall, printed in such a way that they signified various "walks of life" or "professions", including that of prisoner, by means of the clichéd black-and-white striped outfit!
Finally, there is a large café occupying the eastern half of the top floor. Attached to it is a balcony where patrons (more specifically: smokers!) can sit outside – just above that watchtower exhibit below.
Back at ground level, adjacent to the atrium, there is a museum shop. However, it has very little on offer that is thematically related to the museum, except books about politics/history and human rights in general (almost all in Spanish only). Otherwise it stocks just standard souvenirs, but nothing like a museum catalogue or so. The staff assured me, though, that some such thing was in the making. So maybe when you get there the shop may be more worth a look than it was when I was there.
The somewhat disappointing museum shop aside, I found the Santiago Memorial Museum the most impressive of its type ever. If only there was more English translation so that foreign visitors lacking sufficient Spanish could get as much out of the exhibition too. I was there with an English-speaking guide so I had some well needed help (see also under Santiago). But even without much knowledge of Spanish nor a guide it's definitely worth going – if you know English, you can at least have quite a good guess at the Spanish labelling, given the substantial lexical overlap between the two languages. A visit to this museum is about the best thing any dark tourist (or any tourist full stop) can do when in this city. Very highly recommended!
UPDATE: I've just been informed that the museum now offers audio-guides in a range of foreign languages (including English) and it's said to be of excellent quality. I will soon have the chance to check this out myself, when I'm in Santiago again in January 2014. So watch this space ...
A bit west of the city centre of Santiago de Chile
, some 1.7 miles (2.7 km) from the Plaza de Armas, on Ave Matucana, opposite the eastern side of Parque Quinta Normal.
Access and costs: quite easy, free.
Details: Though not exactly bang in the centre of the city, the museum is still very easy to get to. It's right opposite the metro station Quinta Normal (on line 5, three stops from Plaza de Armas). You can't possibly miss the museum – it's the huge, striking, semi-transparent green hulk just across the street (Ave Matucana). The entrance to the exhibition is underneath the western part, at basement level, accessed through the concourse.
Opening times of the permanent exhibition: Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (originally only until 6 p.m., as the website still has it, but when I was there, this had been amended – though I cannot say whether this is a permanent change). The documentation centre is open Mon-Fri 10-17:30h. Exhibition spaces in the atrium, and the Memorial Plaza have longer opening times. Spanish-language guided tours are offered at weekends (at 11 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 and 4 p.m. – no registration required).
Admission free (regular guided tours offered by the museum are also free).
Strictly no photography ... ironically, given the subject matter, grim-looking guards patrol the museum's exhibition rooms and corridors to police the rule and make sure there's no sneaking clandestine snaps in!
Time required: depends quite crucially on whether you can understand Spanish or not, or whether you have an interpreter/translator guide or use an audio-guide. Without any of that you may only need 45 minutes or so (if that). But otherwise allocate between at least two hours and half a day. I spent nearly three hours there. But if you really want to dig deep and work your way through the wealth of information available at the various interactive stations too, then you may need even longer than that.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The memorial museum is right next door to Santiago de Chile's best public park, the Parque Quinta Normal, which apart from being a splendid recreational space also boasts several museums within its grounds including the Natural History Museum, the Science and Technology Museum, the Railway Museum and the art museum known as Museo Artequin. For further attractions see under Santiago de Chile