A Matter of Trust: The Organisational Design of the Museo de la Libertad y la Democracia, Panama


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Panama is a country at the crossroads. Its geography has made it synonymous with transience, and a violent history during the twentieth century has it struggling with how to best approach the building up of a democratic society. The night of the 20th of December 1989, Panamanians awoke to a battle that had started much earlier with the disruption of constitutional order in 1968. The military dictatorship, with its baggage of murders, loss of civil rights, censorship of the press and later dissolution via foreign military intervention, has undoubtedly left a deep imprint in Panamanian society. The official response towards this complex history has been one of silence. Museums tend to ignore the period, and when they dare to address it, they do so in passing, only temporarily (Sánchez Laws, Panamanian Museums and Historical Memory. Oxford: Berghahn, 2011). This attitude is somewhat understandable: breaking silence involves taking a stand in a history for which there are no easy answers. A new project for a museum dealing with this period has just been launched. The Museo de la Libertad y la Democracia is a private initiative wishing to redress the exclusion of the military regime and invasion from official narratives. The museum intends to frame this history in the context of human rights, so as to enhance its credibility and trustworthiness (De Obaldia 2011, personal communication with the author). In this chapter, I examine the museum’s need to build trust and propose one possible line of action. I approach the issue from within a review of current Panamanian heritage legislation as related to the recommendations of regional and international bodies of which the country is member (ILAM, ICOM and UNESCO). I am especially interested in recommendations concerning the safeguarding of documentary heritage, of which UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme is an example. I discuss how Panamanian legislation has mostly focused on artefacts from remote historical periods (i.e. pre-Columbian and Colonial). I then draft how the Museo de la Libertad y la Democracia might define its mission as that of promoting the acquisition, conservation and interpretation of documentary heritage (such as what is done in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror”, Argentina’s “Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1976–1983—Archives for Truth, Justice and Memory in the struggle against State Terrorism” and the “Human Rights Archive of Chile”). By grounding its activities in this manner, the museum can avoid being drawn into polarised discussions about “how” the military regime and invasion should be represented and concentrate on the fact that it is vital that evidence about this period is collected and made available for scrutiny
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Ethics of Cultural Heritage
EditorsTracy Ireland, John Schofield
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781493916498
ISBN (Print)9781493916481
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Publication series

NameEthical Archaeologies: The Politics of Social Justice


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