New museum at former detention centre reignites Argentinian debate on memorials

03 June 2015 by Luciana Bertoia, Buenos Aires (Argentina)

A memorial museum newly opened at the location of one of the most infamous illegal detention centres during Argentina’s dictatorship illustrates a national debate about how to commemorate such sites. 

Names of ESMA navy officers are displayed at the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Photo: Luciana Bertoia)
Image caption: 
Names of ESMA navy officers are displayed at the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Photo: Luciana Bertoia)

On 19 May, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner inaugurated the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos at the former naval academy. The ESMA, as the academy is called locally, operated as a clandestine detention centre and maternity ward [IJT-170] during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Some 5,000 political prisoners were illegally held there, with the majority of its inmates having ‘disappeared’.

During the regime, there were an estimated 500 concentration camps, but the ESMA, because it was the busiest – not to mention most elegantly located, in a Buenos Aires neighbourhood – came to symbolize military repression. 

“Not a museum”

“This could not be hidden,” Fernández said last month, standing outside ESMA’s officers’ quarters, which is where prisoners were held. “This is not a museum for us. Museums keep pieces from the past, whereas memorial sites preserve memory, justice and truth,” she added.

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