Road Trip Through History: Museum of Memory and Human Rights

The Bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973 by the Junta's Armed Forces.
The Bombing of La Moneda (the Chilean equivalent of the White House) on September 11, 1973, by the Junta’s Armed Forces.

My Own True Love and I went to Chile over the holidays for a family wedding and a spot of adventure. We set off knowing where we needed to be when and no idea about the details. We discovered strawberry juice, pisco sours, enormous holes in our knowledge of Chilean history, and the amazing kindness of strangers. We spent two nights in a cabin that looked like a hobbit hole, walked in the foothills of the Andes, and stayed up much later than we are used to.

Along the way we visited a truly powerful museum: the Museo de la Memoria et los Derechos Humanos (The Museum of Memory and Human Rights).

The museum documents the events of the military coup of September 11, 1973,* the subsequent abuses of the Pinochet years, the courage of those who stood against the regime, and the election in which Chile voted Pinochet out of power in 1988.** The exhibits are an assault on the senses, using contemporary film clips, music, photographs, and recordings. Photographs of the regime’s victims “float” against a glass wall that is two-stories high. Interviews with survivors of the coup were fascinating; interviews with survivors of the government’s human rights abuses were almost unbearable. A recording of President Allende’s final speech, broadcast under siege from the presidential palace shortly before his death, was awe-inspiring. In short, the museum shows humanity at its best and its worst.

In many ways, the Museo de la Memoria resembles Holocaust museums we’ve visited, not only in its insistence on memory and celebration of survival, but in its message of “never again”. A quotation from former Chilean president (and now president elect) Michelle Bachelet Jeria is engraved at the entrance that sums up the museum’s purpose: “We are not able to change our past. The only thing that remains to us to learn from the experience. It is our responsibility and our challenge.” Statements about and explanations of the universal declaration of human rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948, are interwoven throughout the historical exhibits.

I cannot say we had a fun morning. My Own True Love and I left the museum drained. We also were very pleased we made the effort. If you are lucky enough to have the chance to visit Chile, make the time to visit. If you don’t see Chile in your future but would like to know more about Chile under the Pinochet regime, these two books come highly recommended: Andy Beckett’s Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History and Hugh O’Shaughnessy’s Pinochet: The Politics of Torture. I haven’t read either of them yet, but I’m putting them on my need-to-read list.

*The United States is not the only country to remember 9/11 with sadness.
**I don’t know of any other instance in which a dictatorship allowed itself to be voted out of power. Do you?

Photograph courtesy of the Library of the Chilean National Congress

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