It’s difficult to talk about cities and people in Chile today, without relating to its deeply disturbing socio-political past. The dictatorship of 1973 to 1990 and the struggle to overthrow it continue to have significant influence on the mindset of chilean society today.

During my time here I have heard conversations about Pinochet and the disappearances as if it had all happened recently.  People I have spoken to have used the reference to the ‘No‘ campaign as a metaphor or in jokes such as ‘as long as you voted No, you’re alright’. I’ve also seen No campaign logo badges on hats, bags and coats. It’s a fashion too. The country’s past has produced a movement that is very much part of its present. Even amongst newer generations for whom the dictatorship was not a first hand experience. Having observed the strength of this movement first hand, I’ve been interested in thinking about how certain spaces in the city have been shaped with the intention of being part of this movement. As well as the intention of reinforcing certain ideas and principles for the future of the movement.

Here, I understand knowledge as a product of experience, drawing on McFarlane’s work on Learning the City which I have written about in Grounded Planning. Spaces invite certain experiences and in doing so, influence the knowledge that is produced from them. Although, while some experiences are intended from the design, others happen spontaneously or as a purposeful act of contradiction.

So, it’s interesting to think about who has produced them? the intention in their design and how this intention influences the direction that the production of knowledge takes within these spaces?

When visiting Santiago and Valparaiso, I found two very different spaces that have both undergone a process of construction and recognition of memory. One, the Museum of Memory, which was built years after the end of the dictatorship and the second, which was once a jail and detention centre that held political prisoners, which has been transformed from a space of torture to a space of creativity and production. Although two very different spaces I find it interesting to reflect on the above questions in relation to these two spaces that are a product of an effort to overcome a turbulent past, produce knowledge about that past and project a more tolerant and inclusive future.

Museo de Memoria, Santiago

The Museum

Museums play an important role in knowledge production and exchange in the city. They are often found in iconic buildings demonstrating their importance at both local and national scales. Often, museums are referred to frequently in any guide book and tourists make up a signifiant part of their income, playing an important role in their maintenance and reputation. Locals will visit a museum when people visit them or once or twice when they visit a new city. Another important contribution comes from local schools that take heards of students to museums to learn. This is all pretty obvious, until you begin thinking about a museum of memory. At this point, the questions above become pretty crucial and it opens up a whole new set of questions about intention.

Whose memory are we representing? Why do we remember? For whom do we remember? 

In its formulation, the President of the time, Michelle Bachelet observed that a Museum of Memory and Human Rights should be about education and rescuing a memory of a painful past that can inform the construction of a projected desirable future for new generations. The Museum is for all chileans to feel ‘proud of a country that finds itself in the truth and the acknowledgement of its history’ [1].

One of the main objectives identified is to: Educate for peace, calling citizenships to reflect on the consequences of intolerance and the need for a culture of inclusion, passive conflict resolution, respect for diversity, solidarity and the value of reciprocity. – Translated and summarised from reference [1]

Photographs of the dissappeared, as well as blank white and black phrames for those that have not been identified

I spent a good number of hours in the museum. It is very well curated and I felt I had learnt from an almost complete picture of what had happened. I walked through multiple rooms that presented the events in chronological order from the moment that the Presidential Palace was occupied. Yet I was left wondering why I had not been presented with explanation of why things had happened in this way in the first place. What had driven the conspiracy to overthrow Allende? How had Pinochet gained so much support within the government? I felt the ‘why’ was missing in the picture that had been formed in my head about Chile’s political past. If the objective is to teach to reflect critically on the consequences of intolerance then surely the ‘why’ needs to be a part of the presentation. Especially if it is to promote the reflection on the current challenges that might threaten the promotion and protection of human rights today… [and] promote the development of skills to learn to think, feel and act towards situations that threaten Human Rights Translated and summarised from reference [1] Unless, the design and production of the space has in fact not achieved its intended objective but instead produced a different kind of knowledge which could be valued nonetheless. 

Friends from Chile who have in some way lived the dictatorship explained that the ‘why’, if presented in the museum could be understood as – or imply – a justification for the actions that took place. Again, this comes back to the debate on intention, which is well put by an article in El Mercurio that gets to the heart of the role of the ‘why’ (if any).

The ‘why’ is understood as necessary to providing the ‘full picture’ as I myself suggested earlier on. However, Peña (author of the article) argues that providing a ‘full picture of a memory’ is equivalent to trying to make a map the size of the territory it tries to describe – Translated from reference [2]. In other words, a full memory does not exist, it is always partial and takes different shapes depending on who you ask. All memory is selective [2].

The problem is therefore not if the memory is complete or incomplete, that is a false dilema; the problem to discuss is, what is the basic principle from which the selection of the memories or recollections are formed – Translated and summarised from reference [2]

The position of the Museum of Memory and its creators is therefore a delicate one in two ways. Especially as it influences the knowledge that is reproduced within its walls. Firstly, it needs to strike a moral and political balance, between demonstrating a series of immoral and politically turbulent acts that violated human rights without taking a position, remaining ‘neutral’. Put simply, it must demonstrate that the act of killing is a violation of human rights, regardless of whether the person that was killed deserved it or not because they themselves had killed or violated a human right. Secondly, it needs to speak to the Chilean people above all. Chileans that do not feel neutral towards the past.

The second space for the production of experiences and the recollection of memories can be found in Valparaiso. The ex-carcel (ex-prison) that once held political prisoners is today a vibrant cultural centre. The experience in shaping and designing of this space, however, tells a different story to that of the Museo de Memoria.

Parque Cultural de Valparaiso, Valparaiso

Festival on the grounds of the prison

The prison was originally a factory for the production of gunpowder. It became a prison in 1844 and in 1973 it became a detention and torture centre. In 1999 the prisoners still held within the space were transferred to a new prison outside of the city. That same year, the Municipality of Valparaiso sold the plot to the Ministry of National Goods that identified its potential in becoming a cultural space [6]. In 2000, Valparaiso also signs up some of its neighbourhoods to becoming UNESCO World Heritage [5]. In these years, many proposals are made for the use of the space with conflicting ideas about its role and for whom it should cater. Proposals included the development of housing in the space, the construction of a college and business centre [5].

A grand proposal was put forward by the local government in 2007 to develop the space as a place to receive great national and international audiences, designed by the world renowned architect, Óscar Niemeyer [4,5,6]. This proposal caused significant conflict with local neighbours and the multiple artistic groups that had already been using the space since 2000.

Today, the rejection of this proposal and the opening for a space of dialogue between the municipality and locals is a source of great pride and is written all over the space. The purpose and design of the space was in fact defined gradually and spontaneously by those who were using it since it had been abandoned. Through dialogue, a shift of purpose from that of ‘the culture of spectacle’ national and international, to the ‘culture that is born from the inhabitants of Valparaiso, that which is born from the identity of the port, which is born from their way of life, and which by the way does not discard the spectacle’ – Translated from source [6]. Thus the space is not designed and created in one go, but is instead a product of a gradual process of resignification from those that inhabit it.

Photographs of prisoners held inside during its time as a prison

Knowledge – as experience, people and place

Peña argues that memory is an effort to build a certain identity, a drawing of the future, an expression of what those that make the effort to remember, want to be…memory is built socially through the communication with others and through interactions that are fixed in time… That is why societies and human groups count on rituals and mechanisms of memory with which they draw what they want to be – or scare away what they don’t want to be – and offer this to the new generations [2]. In the case of the ex-carcel this process seems to have materialised through the built space, that is today a thriving cultural centre known to be used for all sorts of artistic activities, including the production of music, therapy, dance and urban agriculture. It is also used for more delicate challenges faced by the local community for example, the combatting of drug addiction [5].

Going back to my original question, I realise now, that in this case (of the ex-prison), the ‘why’ is also missing but I didn’t notice the gap. The space feels complete in the sense that it will never be complete because it is in a constant process of production coming from those that have the knowledge and memories, the people of Valparaiso. And this is clear from the moment you step in. In a way, the space is produced by the people of Valpraiso, for themselves first. Perhaps the Museum felt incomplete because the exhibition was stagnant, frozen in time. It was presented as a story in the past rather than a process of building a story into the future. Which is what it is intended for [1].

What is clear is that the Museum of Memory and the Ex-Carcel are two very different spaces although they are built from the same roots of political history and experiences and with the same intention, to value memory and use it to teach generations of the future. Although they are not comparable in the kind of spaces they represent, they do both produce a certain form of knowledge, shape a form of reflection and are produced with a certain intention to influence people’s understanding of reality. This intention materialises in very different ways, as a friend describes it:

“The museum seeks to stimulate a more existential reflection. The value of life itself. Without second thoughts. Without politics. Valuing the life of a human being by showing how little it was valued in that moment in history. The jail on the other hand doesn’t stimulate reflection but instead, action. That of ’empowerment’ and the appropriation of spaces. The activation. Social organisation. Teamwork. Rebelliousness etc. 

The museum seeks to remember those that died so that they continue to be present. So in that sense, the ‘why’ is a second priority that doesn’t need to be there. The important thing is that the first issue be there, that of generating visibility of the dead. The jail on the other hand seeks to reveal a story. The story of a place. The museum has at its core, individuals, the jail has at its core a process of occupation, refurbishment etc.”

It is clear that knowledge, as experience, is at the core of the design of both these spaces. They provide iconic examples of how space can reproduce knowledge and shape actions. The outcome of the spaces in terms of their impact on society and the subsequent actions that people take are therefore very much defined by the knowledge of those that produced them. It’s a cycle of production, reproduction and transformation of knowledge through the interaction between people and place.

At the entrance of the Ex-Prison there is a plaque:

In memory of the hundreds of men and youth that past through this prison, to fight for the liberty and democracy of our country. 

Political Prisoners of Valparaiso

August 2002



  1. El Museo de la Memoria, Associacion de ex-presos politicos de Chile en Francia. Website: [Accessed: 7th November 2018]
  2. La Derecha y La Memoria, El Mercurio. Website: [Accessed: 7th November 2018]
  3. La historia y la memoria de los derechos humanos, El Mercurio. Website: [Accessed: 7th November 2018]
  4. La ex-carcél de Valparaíso que ganó su libertad como parque cultural, URBATORIVM. Website: [Accessed: 7th November 2018]
  5. La carcél y el parque: La transformación de la Ex-Carcél de Valparaíso en Centro Cultural,  Jordán, L (2006). Website:
  6. Parque Cultural Ex Carcél de Valparaíso, Camainque Leverone, R. (2005), Universidad de Chile, Facultad de Architectura y Urbanismo

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