Why you should care
Colombian museums and exhibits are emerging as reminders of the pain of conflict.
Colombian soldier Libio José Martínez’s son used to play with a toy version of the helicopter he hoped his father, held captive by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, would escape in. His father, however, never made it to freedom — in 2011, after 14 years in captivity, Martinez was killed. As was 26-year-old civilian Fair Leonardo Porras, in 2008, when he was tricked by the Colombian army with a job offer, shot dead and displayed with a gun in his hand to falsely boost the military’s combat kill numbers. This past April, the two cases were presented side by side in a memorial wall at the back of a 1,200-square-meter exhibit — a preview of Colombia’s future National Museum of Memory. The exhibit was part of a growing movement to ensure that memories of the longest-running conflict in the Americas, now over, at least on paper, stay front and center as Colombia charts its future.
The country’s President-elect Iván Duque, who defeated leftist candidate Gustavo Petro in a mid-June runoff, has promised to “modify” parts of the peace deal that ended the half-century-long conflict with the FARC in 2016 and won outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. Some of Duque’s more hard-line allies on the right are insisting on shredding the pact, a move that could reopen the country’s still-raw wounds. But amid political debates, museums and memory spaces have emerged across Colombia, aimed at stopping the country from slipping into a fresh conflict.
We don’t want to simplify the conflict, but exactly the opposite — to make it a bit more complex.
Cristina Lleras, curator
They’re building on decades of resistance through historical memory. Many communities had collected testimonies and photographs, curated exhibits, constructed monuments and even salvaged the instruments of war left behind in the years leading up to the 2016 accords. The Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (National Center of Historical Memory), which organized the April exhibition in Bogotá, was formed in 2011 after a law protecting victims’ rights was passed. Tumaco’s Casa de la Memoria (House of Memory) and Bogotá’s Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación (Center of Memory, Peace and Reconciliation) are among several others that have opened across the country since. Many of these have joined the Red Colombiana de Lugares de Memoria, a grass-roots national network of memorials, museums and community centers that started with 10 sites in 2015, a number that has now exploded to 28. And the April exhibition was only a test run for the full-fledged national museum on the memory of the conflict, a $24 million project set to open in 2020.
“We didn’t want to simplify the conflict, but exactly the opposite — to make it a bit more complex, to make you say, ‘I thought I understood this conflict, but here’s so much that I didn’t know,’” says Cristina Lleras, the project’s coordinator.
That complexity is something José Luis Foncillas deals with all the time. Foncillas is coordinator of the Casa de la Memoria in Tumaco, 700 miles from Bogotá, on the country’s Pacific coast. The museum opened in 2013, when the FARC still controlled much of the region. Five years later, the once-Marxist guerrillas are no longer one of the armed groups present in Tumaco, but families still often ask the museum to remove some parts of victims’ accounts before making them public. “People in Tumaco are still very afraid to speak. The fear has not diminished, because the armed conflict has not diminished,” says Foncillas. “We don’t publish everything we’d like to, like you can in Bogotá.”
Globally, the memorialization of wars and genocides has taken multiple forms. Take the stolpersteine — stumbling stones — for instance. These cubes with brass plates are embedded on pavements in front of houses from which Jewish families were evicted and taken to concentration camps. Each stolperstein declares the name of the former resident, when she or he was forced to leave, where they were taken, and when and where they died. These stones, which started in Germany, now mark sidewalks in at least 20 countries. In Lima, Perú’s Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion) confronts the country’s bloody civil violence between 1980 and 2000.
In Colombia too, different museums are engaging with visitors by using different approaches. The museum in Tumaco welcomes more than 6,000 schoolchildren a year with workshops on human rights. The museum also offers workshops to train teachers on peace building. In Medellín, the Museo Casa de la Memoria (House of Memory Museum) works with former combatants in reintegration to construct timelines of the violence in their city. At the Centro Nacional exhibit in Bogotá, visitors can explore other sites of memory by using virtual reality goggles, participating in a comics drawing workshop and listening to traditional mourning songs that evoke the testimony of victims of a 2002 massacre.
This surge in efforts to memorialize the conflict’s history coincides with some key moments in Colombia’s recent history, says Juan Pablo Vera Lugo, associate professor of anthropology at Bogotá’s Javeriana University. Before the 2016 peace deal and the 2011 law on victims’ rights, the demobilization in 2005 of one the country’s largest paramilitary groups resulted in publicly available testimonies. But many victims felt that aspects of the truth had been left out or covered up. Around the same time, the memory museum in Medellín, as well as other memorials and community centers, began gaining steam, and international financing, as memory, in Vera Lugo’s opinion, became part of the national conversation.
Foncillas is careful to point out that most of these initiatives began without financial support from the Colombian government. Members of the Red group continue to petition the Colombian Congress for a memory law that would direct resources to local memory initiatives. For its part, the upcoming national museum in Bogotá, Foncillas hopes, will function as part of the Red, and help fund memory spaces in hard-hit regions rather than bring traveling exhibitions to the capital.
Lleras acknowledges concerns that the capital’s museum could overshadow local initiatives, but believes it must instead work within the already existing landscape of civil society groups and memory spaces. She wants the museum to be in “constant construction,” rather than play host to a yearslong permanent exhibition.
On the Friday before the opening of the April exhibit, Lleras was running late to pick up a coca plant. She had chosen to include it in the exhibit to highlight the multiple perspectives surrounding the conflict. Depending on whom you ask, la mata que mata (“the plant that kills”) represents the lifeblood of violence, a necessary livelihood, a key eradication target and the reason for United States military aid, a plot device lining pockets at Netflix – producers of the hit show Narcos – or a sacred plant. Since the 2016 accord, coca cultivation levels have exploded. Outgoing president Santos has announced plans to use drones to eradicate crops with herbicide, a tactic that previously led to unrest.
These complex layers to the conflict and its aftermath won’t be easy to fit into an exhibit space. In Colombia, the forced disappearances and displacements depicted continue to be reported by new victims. “We’ve got to invent a museum for the Colombian context,” says Lleras. “We can’t import any model, it won’t work.”