Road Trip through History: The Colchagua Museum

We might not have gone to the Colchagua Museum in Santa Cruz, Chile, if one of our local hosts hadn’t recommended it so strongly.  The guidebooks described it as a private collection that had been turned into a museum–something I always approach with the caution.  Private collections fueled by a personal passion often create a museum that is not accessible to a viewer who does not share the passion.  A wealthy collector is no guarantee that the collection will be coherent or interesting–though it will probably be well-displayed*

The Colchagua Museum focuses on Chilean history, from the prehistoric times to 2010.  That’s a lot of ground for a moderately sized museum to cover.  Not surprisingly, the museum is uneven in its presentation. But when it’s good–wow!

The rooms devoted to fossils, paleontology and pre-Columbian history are excellent.  The artifacts displayed are some of the finest I’ve ever seen, interspersed with an occasional clearly identified reproduction needed to illustrate a specific point.  The following points in particular grabbed my attention:

  • A very clear description of the appearance, division, convergence, and re-division of the continents over the millennia.  I was aware of Pangaea, the super-continent that broke apart to form the continents as we know them.  I wasn’t aware that  Pangaea was probably preceded by at least one other supercontinent.
  • The megatherium was an actual prehistoric animal, not a detail made up by E. Nesbit in her wonderful children’s novel, Five Children and It.  Some times the depths of my own ignorance amaze me.
  • One of the many failings of American history classes,** is that the only pre-columbian cultures we are taught about are the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas.*** The Colchagua Museum  outlines the  range of Andean cultures that preceded the Incas in almost overwhelming detail.
  • The suggestion that the ancient Japanese may have reached South America, based on a perceived resemblance between artifacts of the Jōmon culture of Japan (10,000 BCE to 300 BCE) and the Valdivia culture of Ecuador (3500 BCE-1800 BCE).  This strikes me as being roughly equivalent to thinking the ancient Egyptians settled Central America because the Central American cultures built pyramids.  But I don’t really know enough about either culture to judge.  I’m adding this to my Big List of Questions, but would be happy to hear from any of you who actually know something.

Once we moved past the Incas and into the rooms devoted to the period from the Spanish conquest through the nineteenth century, the exhibits felt more random.  They seem to be based on the artifacts at hand rather than a clear sense of narrative.**** By the time we reached the extraordinarily handsome nineteenth century popcorn machine, we were ready to skip ahead to the exhibit that brought us to the museum.

The Great Rescue tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped when the San José mine collapsed on August 5, 2010.  For 69 days, the world watched as the Chilean government and an international team that included mining engineers, drilling experts and NASA worked to rescue the miners. It was a story that had everything: suspense, human interest, heroic engineering,  and a happy ending.

The exhibit tells the story from many angles.  The shanty town that grew around the mine entrance where family members waited to hear news.  The history of the mine itself.  How the miners survived before the rescue team made contact.  The moment when a drill bit pulled up the first communication from the miners.  The technical details of the rescue.  The rescue itself.  It ends with video footage of each miner being brought up and reunited with their families. My experience of the exhibit was both visceral and intellectual.  I struggled with sympathetic claustrophobia, marveled over the technical brilliance of the solutions, and choked up more than once.

We had planned to go to the Darwin room after we finished the Great Rescue, but decided it would be an anticlimax.

* The Arthur Rubloff paperweight collection at the Art Institute of Chicago comes to mind. Pretty things, but do they really deserve their own gallery?

** By which I mean history taught in the United States, as opposed to classes about American history. Though now that I think about it, the failing is one of classes about American history taught in the United States.

***Indulge me in a small rant, will you?  Obviously the only reason we are taught about these cultures is that they were standing on the shores when the Spanish invaded.  (We tend to learn about the history of other countries only at the points where it intersects with our own interests.) Worse, from my perspective , our textbooks often describe these cultures as “ancient” even though they are clearly the contemporaries of the Europeans who invaded them.  This is one side-step away from terming them “primitive”. Which they clearly were not.

****Though I was fascinated by a case that traced the history of printing in Latin America from pre-columbian seals to the nineteenth century printing press.
A few travel notes for anyone who finds themselves in central Chile

  • If you’re interested in eighteenth and nineteenth century history and have even a little Spanish, you’re better off going to the national historical museum in Santiago.  The exhibits aren’t as flashy.  They don’t have an audio tour (or English signs).  But there is a clear narrative, not just one dang thing after another.
  • If you have several hours to spare, head down the road from Santa Cruz to the small town of Lola and visit the Chilean Craft Museum.  Historical examples of traditional Chilean handicrafts shown in contrast with the work of modern artisans in those same crafts.  Utterly fascinating, even without any Spanish.
  • Two words:  wine tour.  Trust me on this.

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