I had no idea, entering the Museo de la Memoria, that Chile shares September 11th with the US as a day that lives in infamy. On September 11th, 1973 the military coup that would place Chile under dictatorship for 17 years ripped through the nation and resulted in the executions, disappearances, and torture of thousands of Chileans.
The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the coup, dictatorship, human rights violations, and citizen resistance. I went into the museum only knowing that there had been a military dictatorship and that some people said the CIA was involved. I came out with more questions than answers – wondering, thinking, and feeling many different things.
As we entered the museum, we were greeted by life-sized cut outs of individuals who had disappeared, holding up their identification cards. These cutouts continued throughout the museum. One of my first reactions was surprise at how little I knew about these events. Even Will, who received a Latin American History certificate in college, knew very little about the coup and dictatorship. Both of us moved through the first major room – dedicated to telling the story of the coup – astounded by what happened in Chile. We repeatedly used surprised tones to exclaim to one another “and then they bombed the presidential palace?!?”, “wait – Salvador Allende (the president) shot himself?!?”, and we huddled around the screen that showed his final radio address.
What struck me second was how honest and thorough the museum is in describing the human rights violations and honoring those who suffered. These exhibits are particularly powerful because they do not hold back detail and frequently involve first hand accounts of torture, which also makes them hard to stomach. This is an approach that we’d never see in the US. Here is a beautiful museum dedicated to telling the story of human rights atrocities that were committed by the government. Even our civil rights museums focus on the struggle of the oppressed rather than the wrongs committed by the system. It’s inspiring that Chile wholly owns and mourns these events at the same time.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This is an approach that we’d never see in the US. Here is a beautiful museum dedicated to telling the story of human rights atrocities that were committed by the government.[/pullquote]
We got kicked out the museum before we were finished – right as we started to learn about the clergy, women’s
groups, and worker’s groups who began to protest and question the mass disappearances. We had been there 90 minutes but hadn’t reached the end by closing time. I left wanting to know the history of Allende’s elected government, more information about who Pinochet (the military dictator) was, and details on who disappeared and why (it’s implied in the exhibits, but I wanted to know more.) We speculated on how involved the US had been in the coup and dictatorship and talked about the destructive cold war anxieties of our government. We talked about how the military dictatorship ended with an election rather than more violence – and why that is not what’s happening after the Arab Spring.
Museo de Memoria is powerful, disturbing, and inspiring. It tells a story that raises so many questions and thoughts about Chile and the greater world. If you are in Santiago, please go. Just get there at least two hours before closing time. You’ll need it.
Note: The featured photo is attributed to Francisco Javier Cornejos here and is under this Creative Commons license with some rights reserved. We used some minor cropping to fit the photo to our site.