December 20, 2014
‘It’s time to bring Malvinas out of the war’
If you weren’t watching closely, you would have missed it. An elegant construction project funded by the national government that seemingly emerged out of nowhere in the far corner of the massive former Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) clandestine detention centre in the Núñez neighbourhood. Inside, a state-of-the-art museum covering 500 years of Malvinas Islands history.
Journalist and Kirchnerite activist Jorge Giles is its director. He welcomed the Herald to the Malvinas and South Atlantic Islands Museum, after the brief honeymoon period that followed President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s showy inauguration of the facility last month via national broadcast.
Abuzz with school students, the museum’s visitor numbers are rapidly on the rise, says Giles, who plans to continue taking an active role regardless of his management responsibilities at the site. “We’re open Friday to Sunday, including public holidays, and you’ll always see me moving about the three floors,” he says, wearing a guide’s badge.
While the Malvinas are rarely far from the headlines, Giles sees his project as transcending the highly-sensitive nature of the territorial dispute with the UK over the islands. “The museum’s not only about the sovereignty issue, which you can see in some of the displays we have,” he says.
First stop on the guided tour is an interactive kids’ room designed in partnership with the Paka Paka television channel. “You would be surprised at how many adults get hooked on this stuff,” Giles notes, pointing to touch screens that encourage youngsters to find answers to clues about the Malvinas’ flora and fauna.
The ground floor also features a small 360-degree theatre, where viewers can absorb a short history of Argentina’s connection with the Malvinas over 500 years. Part of the footage was filmed by a team sent especially to capture images of the islands’ natural wonders, which Giles notes are almost identical to the flora and fauna of the southernmost part of the Argentine Patagonia.
“As you can see, the first half of the film is about nature,” Giles explains of the superbly filmed HD imagery, which progressively moves from the sea toward the islands. “But like the second half, which is more about the human side of the Malvi-nas, the footage can be very emotional for some visitors, because a lot of us have no idea about flora and fauna and geography of the islands.”
Giles knows the museum like the palm of his hand. As a staunch proponent of the national government’s political agenda, he was first tasked with designing what he calls “the script” for the museum — in other words its content — and was eventually invited by the president to stay on as its director. “It was a great honour,” the Tiempo Argentino newspaper columnist tells the Herald of his leadership of a project that cost the state 100 million pesos.
On the second floor, the focus on nature continues with taxidermied animals like the famously giant Malvinas penguin and videos exploring the underwater world surrounding the archipelago, among other novelties, all of which are of superb quality.
Human rights doubts
The busiest of the three floors also kicks off visitors’ introduction to the human history on the islands, with a miniature display of the first Argentine settlement and a small theatre where visitors can watch cuts of Nuestras Islas Malvinas, a documentary by the little-known but fascinating Raymundo Gleyzer, who was forcibly disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship as a result of his political activism.
On the issue of the dictatorship, intimately linked to the Malvinas, Giles was confident in his responses to questions about the appropriateness of building the museum on the grounds of the ex-ESMA, which was used as a detention centre by the same junta that sent young, ill-equipped Argentine soldiers to fight against a dominant British armed forces.
Noting that some fallen soldiers and veterans of the South Pacific War were known to have participated in crimes against humanity during the period of state terrorism, he told the Herald that “many people have said it’s a paradox for us to be here, but the museum is fundamentally about the truth.”
Outside a small room on the third floor, where the faces of fallen soldiers are broadcast on screens set to the backdrop of the famous Darwin Cemetery, visitors can find a sign explaining the role of some Malvinas soldiers in state repression.
“We spent a lot of time discussing it, but we finally decided to include the faces of repressors as well, again because of the need for truth,” Giles says.
The sign specifically mentions the war’s first Argentine fatality, Pedro Giachino, a repressor from the city of Mar del Plata who prior to departing for the Malvinas had applied for a place in the ESMA’s so-called “Subversive War” course aimed at “eliminating” left-leaning activists and militants, some of whom were being detained and tortured at the ESMA at the same time the war unfolded.
“It’s provoked visitors to question some of the history they’ve been taught over the years,” Giles adds, “but some of them have expressed their anger as well, especially because of how we’ve described Giachino.”
Argentina has long disputed Britain’s domain over the islands as an UK overseas territory, and most recently took issue with the European country’s permission for oil exploration to begin around the archipelago.
Relics of the 1982 war between both countries are dotted throughout the museum, the most striking of which is the remains of the ARA General Belgrano that British forces sunk on May 2 that year, killing 323 Argentine crew members on board.
In the same vein that he suggests the museum aims to explore the truth, reflections on the painful experience of war simply could not have been left out of the museum’s design, which Giles describes as generally being forward-thinking and open-ended.
“We’re against the what happened during the war, and against the dictatorship,” he says. “But we see the museum as an opportunity to bring the issue of the Malvinas back from that dark time and into a more constructive space, which means we have to reflect on what happened.”@jaysonmcnamara