Monday, 2 December 2013

Guest post: "Building memories", by Ricardo Brodsky (Chile)

Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago de Chile opened the Museums Association conference in Liverpool on 11 November. The photo posted by the museum on Facebook made me feel sorry for not having been able to listen to his speech. But I got in touch with Ricardo and he was kind enough to send me his text and to authorize the publication on this blog. Here we present an edited, shorter, version, but there is a link in the end for those wishing to read the whole speech. mv

This is our September 11, the starting point of the story to which I will refer and which inspired the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (MMHR) in Chile.

1. Memory

Memory is not a nostalgic exercise about the past. Memory is our identity, what we are. We could say that memory inhabits us in such a way that it defines our ideas about the present, our values and our perception of the future.

In his text La Muralla y los Libros (The Wall and the Books), Jorge Luis Borges talks about Emperor Shih Huang Ti, who built that Chinese Wall and instructed, at the same time, that all books prior to him be burned. With the Wall he intended to protect his country from external enemies and he burned the books because his opponents turned to them when it came to praising their ancestors. We witnessed this during the Pinochet years, when the country’s institutions were destroyed, people disappeared, books were burned and the people linked to the popular culture and history were banned because, in a way, it all represented an epic which had to be abolished.

I use the word “abolish” and not the word “oblivion” on purpose. The kind of memory we are talking about is not equivalent to the storage capacity of a hard drive disk in a computer where everything is registered with no hierarchy. The opposite to memory is not oblivion but abolishment, elimination. Memory works with exemplary events, with what allows us to reap lessons, give a sense to the experience lived. Memory is, therefore, a higher step beyond trauma and the feelings of despair, loneliness and depression that memory can cause. Memory is what allows life to continue, for hope to come back, for us to get back on our feet again. With a narration about our past and a bet on our future.

2. Connections

At the MMHR we work with material that is extremely complex and sensitive: truth, justice, victimization, memory, reconciliation, repairing. These are all ideas that question us permanently and force us, over and over again, to go over the concepts that are the basis of our work. It is impossible, though, to understand our institution if we do not understand the process from which it originated, as well as the social and political needs that were meant to be met.

On September 11, 1973 began one of Chile’s most traumatic political experiences. The armed forces, headed by a military junta of commanders in chief, staged an armed uprising against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, installing a cruel dictatorship which lasted 17 years, suppressing legal rights and committing grievous human rights violations, resulting in the death and disappearance of more than three thousand people and the political arrest and torture of around forty thousand more, plus exiling almost a million Chileans.

Seventeen years later, following the opposition’s victory in a plebiscite held in 1988 to prolong the Pinochet government, a complex and difficult transition to democracy began, which included facing the thorny debts left by the dictatorship, not only in the social and political sphere, but especially in the area of our society’s moral recomposition, that is to say, the sphere of truth, justice and human rights. The democratic government’s human rights policies have centered around four basic pillars or demands: Truth, Justice, Reparation and Memory.

3. Truth

Once democracy was recovered, the first effort in human rights policies in Chile was the quest to establish the truth about the most serious human rights violations committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Two Commission were established, involving people with high credentials, which affirmed that the human rights violations committed by state agents were massive, systematic and had been approved at the highest level of government at the time. This affirmation, supported by the existence of proof and irrefutable testimonies, allowed the country to know the truth about the existence of more than 3.000 detained-disappeared and executed and also allowed a very relevant second step to take place, which was the opening of the possibility to establish reparation policies for the victims and their families. In 2003, a second commission, set up to investigate the cases of people who suffered political imprisonment and torture, recognized 38.254 victims of torture.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile (Photo: MMDH) 
4. Justice

The struggle for justice in the transition process has been the most difficult and polemic aspect. Since the end of the military regime and until 1998, judicial investigation made, as a general rule, scant progress and it was normal for the courts to apply an amnesty decree law passed by the military dictatorship. In 1998, in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest in London, ordered by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, new conditions began to be generated which have produced, slowly but gradually, some progress in judicial investigations, which have allowed for the identification of those directly responsible for human rights violations. Today there are 1,426 active cases, of which 1,402 deal with disappearance or killing. However, only 66 agents are serving prison sentences, among them key figures in the DINA (National Intelligence Department) and CNI (National Intelligence Agency); 173 agents have been sentenced but are not in jail, for various reasons, and there are also 528 agents whose prosecution has been completed, but have still not received a definite sentence.

5. Building memory

In this context, the government of Michelle Bachelet created in 2010 the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, as a project of moral or symbolic reparation to victims of the dictatorship and as an educationial project, in order for the new generations to understand the value of respect for human rights.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, where Chilean society symbolically fulfills its duty of memory, looks directly at its past and responds to the right of memory for victims of the dictatorship. Its origin can be found in the recommendations of the report of truth of 1991 and in the 2004 statement by UNESCO that the archives of various human rights organizations in Chile are part of the world’s memory.  In addition to this, there is a demand by the organizations of relatives and victims of human rights abuses. It holds the largest collection of documents, photographs, objects, testimonies and films about the dictatorship in the country and exhibits them to the public, trying to produce empathy with the victims and the revival of values and lessons from the experiences of human rights abuses. The victims groups are actively involved in its life and they feel included.

The MMHR’s mission is to “make known the systematic violations of human rights on behalf of the Chilean State between 1973 and 1990, so that by ethically reflecting on memory, solidarity and the importance of human rights, the national will is strengthened, in order to prevent actions which affect human dignity from ever being repeated again”.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile (Photo: MMDH)
What is the place for this museum in Chile’s society today?

Pierre Nora has said that the Places of Memory are constructions that seek to “stop time, block the work of oblivion, fix a state of things, immortalize death, materialize what is immaterial in order to lock up the maximum number of senses in the minimum number of signs”. In that sense, the MMHR has the mission to recover and preserve the tracks of that traumatic past, give testimony of the sufferings, so that public knowledge about what happened may break into the circle of silence and impunity and emphasize the need to prevent something like that from happening again. In other words, the Museum of Memory, as an expression of a public policy of reparation, is the State’s main gesture of moral reparation to the dictatorship’s victims: this is where the history or the biography of each one of the victims is found or built and where their dignity, that was snatched away from them, is given back to them. The MMHR has turned into a reference point for our country and our region, similar projects being constructed in Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

Having said that, I must also say that it is a project located in a land of controversies. Every museum that deals with traumatic stories is aware of the tension between history and memory, between the explanation of the events organized chronologically and the subjective experience of memories backed up by a testimony. The museums of memory have, precisely, the challenge of conjugating that tension, so the testimonies may be exemplary and representative, transcending the mere personal experience or that of the groups directly affected. Only by solving that tension in a positive manner can the message be universal and link the demands of truth and justice with a broader democratic imaginary.

According to some, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights’ museography coincides with what Pierre Nora calls the memory’s transformation into history, that is, “it completely relies in what is most precise in the track, what is most natural in the remains, what is most concrete in the recording, the most visible in the image”. Certainly, visitors face the tracks of the past, the faces of the disappeared, the La Moneda bombing, the testimonies of those who were tortured, the anguish of the families. They are forced to live an experience of apprehension, of compassion, empathy and emotion. But they also find the documents, the legal files, the bands and decrees that lead to an experience of confrontation, of analysis, of comparison, of visualizing the context in which violence took place. The museum, in this sense, proposes a tale, a narration able to convey sense, starting from a feeling of empathy with the victims.

The founding of the MMHR generated a wide controversy in the country from day one. These are precisely the topics of this conference. How do we deal with sensitive and controversial issues in an institution which must present a story that is still alive in Chilean society, since many of its main actors are still holding public posts and the Chilean families are still watching or suffering the consequences of that period?

The critical attitudes toward the Museum of Memory either deny the existence of the violations of human rights or justify them, invoking the need to fight an alleged war against a threat represented by marxist parties. There is lighter criticism from other groups, accusing the museum of distorting history by showing only one aspect of the dictatorial period (human rights violations) and fragmenting time, thus, not allowing people to visualize the causes of the military dictatorship. In brief, the critics point to the museum’s partiality when it includes only one vision of the period, that of the victims. This would mean that the narration is not as objective as it should be and, most of all, it would not allow us to know why the political crisis of 1973 took place, culminating in a coup d’état and in human rights violations.

Installation by Alfredo Jaar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Photo: Cristóbal palma for the newspaper El País)
For us, the issue is summarized by stating that the Museum´s mission is to promote public awareness about the seriousness of the human rights violations during the Pinochet period, and that awareness does not have a political or electoral purpose but a moral one, that is, to transform the respect for human rights into a categorical imperative in our coexistence, whatever the context in which it takes place.

The museum cannot pretend to establish a univocal reading of the past. On the contrary, its perspective is to open multiple reading possibilities. It is important to emphasize that the MMHR is perceived as a living museum, open to the reinterpretation of experience and, therefore, provides an important space for contemporary art. Proof of this is the presence of artwork in the permanent exhibition, such as Jorge Tacla’s poem written by Victor Jara in prison and Alfredo Jaar’s work “The geometry of conscience”, that suggests that dialoguing is a tribute to the victims.

Read the whole speech here.

Ricardo Brodsky Baudet is the Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile since May 2011. He developed a project at the Museum of Memory as a space for reflection and extensive public education, giving more importance to the collection and the permanent exhibition and giving a prominent position to the visual arts and various cultural events related with memory and human rights. He was the first Secretary General of Federation of Students under the dictatorship. Executive Secretary of the Foundation "Chile 21" in 1992 , the Foundation "Proyectamérica" in 2006, and founding director of the "Foundation for Visual Arts Santiago"; organizer of the first Triennial of Chile (2009). He was a consultant for cultural policy of the National Council for Culture and Arts, Chile (2004-2007). He has held positions in government from 1993 to 2010. Head of the Division of interdepartmental coordination of the Ministry General Secretariat of the Presidency (2007 -2010), Chilean Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg (2000-2004).

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