Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago de Chile

21 May 2017

No photos allowed inside. I don’t inquire why, the rules unlikely to be bent. And although Picasso was quoted along the road here “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I can only assume it is to protect fragile, light-sensitive artefacts inside. Alternatively, it might be the content they do not want widely revealed.

Spread across four floors is a slice of Chilean history. Ugly Chilean history. It details the time and events surrounding and following the transition of power from Salvador Allende to Pinochet. The latter’s first name remaining unknown to me, his last too iconic. Communist to dictatorship, a delicate decision, even if between two evils. Not that Chile’s population had a choice to make. With time evidencing that in this history the latter was worse, or at least the reality he presented was worse than that of the fictional future offered by the other.

Displays of monochrome newspaper cuttings and television recordings set the scene. The display commences in the basement, stating that violations of human rights are a universal problem, with variations in time, place and scale. This provides a dauntingly broad setting for the haunting specific example provided on the three floors above. It also has something peculiar, as though by showing that human rights are violated across the globe, Chile can be excused from some of its responsibility in the course of events.

I wander through the contemporary space, which provides a minimalist canvas for stories to come to life. It bathes the exhibit in subdued natural light, its original intensity diminished by the architect’s decisions on metal cladding, placement of walls and partitions. In the middle of the building, just below its memorial heart, there is a small space, hemmed in by black fabric-clad walls. There isn’t much here: a bare metal bed frame strongly reminiscent of those I saw in Cambodia  —remnants of Pol Pot’s terrifying regime; a machine capable of providing electric shocks; and a manual for torture, its pages laminated to allow you to flip through and examine its contents. The space appears as dark as the subject it depicts, but one spotlight is effectively and purposely placed to highlight the cruelty imposed by the inanimate machine.

Behind the bed is a screen, on it survivors of torture recall their experiences, their stories. No graphic images of violence are shown, but the absence of these, replaced instead by real voices and full-spectrum imagery, is more chilling. An elderly woman recalls how her heart broke when one of the two men torturing her apologised for doing so while his superior was out of the room. “You remind me of my mother,” he whispered. And as heart warming, or breaking, as that recollection is, it also showcases that the spotlighted instrument is harmless when not in the hands of men. Its presence thus converting from iconic to symbolic.

I listen to one harrowing story after another, seeing the protagonists, when confronted with their past in the action of recalling the events, lose their composure. Then unnecessarily apologising for doing so. While I stand in this dark space, lightly leaning against a wall to watch these first-hand personal narratives, I notice the rapid turnover of visitors. The spoken Spanish is subtitled in English, making these videos as widely accessible as possible for the public circulating through the space. Are these testimonials too confrontational? Have those who chose to visit been faced with them so frequently they have developed a certain numbness? Or perhaps they are proponents of Pinochet, whose status in Chile is more nuanced — or should I say polarised?

Yet those who listen, in doing so, pay their respects to these individuals who survived the unspeakables of the regime, they provide a voice for those who didn’t, and those who disappeared. Those whose names are on long lists that can be searched for answers. If there are any answers to be found at all. Those whose portraits and empty photo frames inhabit the central memorial space at the core of the building. The museum, amongst other things, is a bunker, sheltering the horrors from the past from the reality of the present, linked only by the colourful string of individual and collective humanity that weaves its way through both worlds.