The Politics of Memory Museums

The newly opened Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile Claudio Reyes / EPA-Corbis

The new Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera, has his work cut out for him, and temblors and tsunamis may be just the beginning. In January, a month before the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shook this South American nation, outgoing president Michelle Bachelet inaugurated the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. She dedicated the sleek, glass- and copper-sheathed building to the victims of the dirty war, the thousands of Chileans who were murdered, tortured, or "disappeared" during the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. "Only injuries thoroughly cleaned can heal," Bachelet, a physician by training, said at the opening. Visitors to the three-story gallery take in halls of silent horrors—snapshots, letters, even the bones of the dead—and come face to face with a wall of 1,000 photos of those arrested and never seen again. But poking wounds is risky, especially in Latin America, where some of the worst human-rights atrocities are just coming to light. Now Piñera must help Chileans not only get back on their feet but also quiet their ghosts.

Chile is not the only country in Latin America seeking to reconcile its past. Peru will name the architect to build its Lugar de la Memória later this year. Plans to open or upgrade human-rights museums are underway in Guatemala, Argentina, and Mexico. At one level, these are monuments to renascent democracy, which was shut down across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, with devastating consequences. Some 3,065 people were killed under Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. Ten times that many fell to serial juntas in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, while 70,000 Peruvians were killed by terrorist groups or state security forces between 1980 and 2000. Remembering victims publicly is not new—think Holocaust museums, or South Africa's Apartheid Museum—nor is the laudable claim behind such memorials: that societies must own up to their darkest hour so as never to repeat it. What's different—and dangerous—about Latin America is how fresh the wounds are. "The Holocaust memorials went up when most of the victims and perpetrators were long gone," says Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman. "In Latin America, they're walking in our midst."

Managing memories is now part of the job description of the new generation of Latin American leaders, and how they fare at the task may determine the fate of the hemisphere's still-tender democracies. Clearly, the monuments have been painstakingly planned. A jury of international architects, including Kenneth Frampton and Rafael Moneo, will select the designer of the Peru museum. Chile's $19 million Memory Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Marcos Figueroa, dominates an entire block in Santiago. Argentina's Memory Museum, newly relocated to the city of Rosario, includes exhibits from the dirty wars in Honduras, Algeria, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. Some offer interactive galleries where visitors can transport themselves, via "virtual" technology, to the past, and all feature personal effects, letters, and photographs of those who died or disappeared.

At their best, these museums are an attempt to inoculate societies against their basest inclinations. "We must consolidate a democratic culture that can save us from fanaticism and drive home [the idea] that terror cannot be combated with terror," says Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist who heads the planning group for the Peruvian museum. The danger is that remembering turns into a political banner, reviving historical animosities and institutionalizing an ideological battle over who controls memory. "In Latin America this is not a disinterested process, much less an effort to work at forgiveness," says Brazilian political analyst Amaury de Souza. "It's a struggle over who gets to write history."

More than posterity is at stake. Memory museums are the latest cultural spinoff of the truth-seeking probes that arose with the resurgence of Latin American democracy. Rival political groups have seized on these initiatives to replay smoldering conflicts. Mexico's memory museum, to open later this year, is the work of opponents to the PRI, the longstanding establishment party that kept a lid on the political archives for more than half a century. In Chile, the center-left political coalition Concertación parlayed the launch of the Memory Museum into a campaign tool to demonize Piñera—who didn't show up for the opening—for his onetime ties to the Pinochet regime.

Across the region, left-wing parties and human-rights groups are arguing that the work of the truth commissions should not end at the museum doors, but should embolden authorities to prosecute the perpetrators. Those on the right decry what they see as a political lynching; one Brazilian general recently labeled the government plan to investigate crimes during the 1964–1985 military rule "the slander commission." The main reason the Peruvian government drafted Vargas Llosa for the museum project was to leverage his international prestige and moderate politics to soothe raw nerves in the military, which—with the blessings of the national defense minister—threatened to start a museum of its own. "Reconciliation is only going to occur if all sides see that they are represented with objectivity," says Vargas Llosa.

Ultimately, the outcome of the museum movement will depend on the diplomatic skill of the national leaders. "It's naive to think you could remember without creating tension," says Adelman. "The question is how civil the debate is going to be, and whether there's going to be violence." That's something Chileans remember only too well. Piñera, an avowed conservative, took office enjoining his battered compatriots to "rise up and work for the future." To get there, however, they will first have to come to terms with the past.

With Lucy Conger