Back to the UBA Museum Network! Finally!
The Ethnographic Museum is under the auspices of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the University of Buenos Aires. It was founded in 1904, and it while it houses collections from other places in the world, it’s focused chiefly on this part of South America. There is a lot of information available on the English-language website.
There are several exhibitions, and I’m not going to talk about all of them, because that would be a lot. The first one, The Uttermost Part of the Earth, addresses the native populations of Tierra del Fuego, and what happened to them. It’s not a happy story.
There were two groups that had lived in the area for thousands of years: sea hunters (Kaweshkar and Yamana) and land hunters (Selk’nam). That went fine for awhile.
The hall is set up with the items of the Native peoples on the left, and items that would be used by explorers and colonizers on the right. A model of a Yamada-style canoe is in the center. There is a guide at the beginning of the hall that translates all the text into English.
Let’s take a look at the Native artifacts first.
Meet Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that Charles Darwin sailed around South America on:
Now meet O’run-del’lico, a Native boy kidnapped by Fitzroy in retaliation for a stolen boat, who was renamed “Jemmy Button” because his family was given a button for him while he was taken back to England for a long time.
He and three other kidnapping victims, renamed York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Boat Memory, because no indignity was too small to inflict on them apparently, were supposed to be “civilized,” Christianized, and returned to Tierra del Fuego to serve as missionaries and intermediaries. Boat Memory died in England. The other three dropped Europeanism like a hot brick and reintegrated into their tribe immediately on their return.
“Hey,” I can hear you asking, “what other insanely racist things resulted in contact with Natives?” Hahaha.
The Selk’nam didn’t long survive sustained contact with non-Natives, which would come to include actual contract murder. The very last died in the 1970s. I’ll end this part with a song, included in the museum’s English guide and I believe from Anne Chapman’s book The End of a World, of the last shaman, Lola Kiepja (recordings available at that link):
The next exhibition is “Challenging the Silence: Indigenous People and the Dictatorship,” so the reading isn’t going to get any lighter here.
The last military dictatorship (supported by the US, I might add), as I’m sure you’re aware, is still very much in living memory here. Visitors are encouraged to leave a Post-It on the wall, which says, “How to challenge the silence?”
It will come as no surprise that Native rights and labor organizers ran afoul of the dictatorship.
The exhibition includes information on how the sugar mills (having been the beneficiaries of military muscle keeping workers in check and working for decades) would act as agents of the dictatorship, informing on workers and allow their land to be used for clandestine detention centers. One company’s own vehicles detained over 400 activists, 30 of which were never seen again.
The exhibit also examines the museum’s own contribution to the erasure of Native cultures during the dictatorship, which celebrated the “Centenary of the Conquest of the Desert” in 1979, which could more accurately be characterized as the centenary of the genocide of the Native peoples. So, sure, parade time.
Let’s take a gander at the artifacts that live upstairs, and channel our inner (or outer) textile nerds.
This exhibit covers a lot of ground and A LOT of time, there was an entire class of children occupying a large part of the room (and I never, ever begrudge children their space in learning institutions–I just didn’t get to the more recent artifacts because their activity was taking up a lot of floor space, but they were really engaged and two thumbs way up to the museum for having a hands-on activity for them), and my dinky little minor in anthropology did not equip me for being a great source on pre-Colombian history, so let’s hit this in broad strokes.
Here’s the region we’re looking at:
The exhibit covers about 4000 years of cultural development in the region (following roughly 6000 years of hunter-gatherer societies), beginning with the earliest domestication of crops and animals.
As things settled into the first millennium CE, society got less egalitarian and chiefdoms formed. Power became hereditary and ancestor worship was socially important.
Along with the integration of groups into a large political entity came more defined social stratification and a centralization of power and activity.
But nevermind the increasing sophistication of craftsmanship, particularly metalworking, and restricted luxury goods that signified social status, let’s get back to the textiles.
The loom comes into use, and surviving textiles show that weavers developed into specialized master craftspeople, just as the metalworkers and ceramics makers did.
Of course, everything goes to hell when the Europeans arrive, as it does. That was the area that the school children were working in, so I didn’t get photos over there.
The exhibition room is large, and there are a lot of stairs, but they’ve used the space well. Old houses present a lot of challenges when they’re used as public institutions, and they’ve done a nice job with this one. If steps are an issue for you, be aware that there are lots.
There’s more to see at the Ethnographic Museum, which is open Tuesday through Friday from 1pm to 7pm and 3pm to 7pm on weekends (closed Monday). There’s a small shop if you’d like to support the museum by upping your swag game. Admission is 40 pesos (about a US dollar currently), and it’s super easy to get to on subway lines D, A, and E and tons of buses.