Chile’s National History Museum celebrates 100 years

An exhibition opening in May will include items that have not been seen for more than 60 years. The institution will be doubling its size before 2015.

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Chile’s National History Museum is situated near the dead-centre of Santiago. The Plaza de Armas, a large quadrangle of neo-renaissance and neo-classical architecture, is dotted by palm trees and populated by old men playing chess in shady patches, caricaturists and street preachers.

Beginning on May 2, the museum will celebrate its centennial with an unprecedented exhibition. The exhibition, says museum director Isabel Alvarado, will look at revisiting the origins of the museum itself, particularly the history behind of the collection, the restoration and display of the pieces, and the circumstances of the historic exhibitions at the  and how the exhibitions that took beginning of the 19th century.

Since its legal inauguration in 1911, the museum has been housed in various buildings around Santiago. The first exhibition in 1873 was held in the Governors Palace – now Santiago’s largest Post office.

Following this exhibition, it moved to Castillo Hidalgo, atop Cerro Santa Lucia in central Santiago; to the mansion of the Urmeneta family on Monjitas; to the Museum of Fine Arts (also celebrating its centennial this year); and finally to the Plaza de Armas, where it remains now.

In the time of the Museum’s founding, says Alvarado, there was “no curatorial sense – they just exhibited the entire collection, more like a warehouse than a museum. The rooms were crammed with objects, and nobody really cared about conservation.”

Nowadays, however, the museum is often only exhibiting around 5% of its total collection – the rest is stored away below ground in state-of-the-art conservation chambers. The May exhibition will show 120 pieces, many of which have not been shown for 60 years.

In the coming months the museum will also be investing in different ways to make more space, specifically by changing the architectural designs of the rooms. The cost is estimated to be around US$146 thousand, and has already been approved by the Treasury.

Noteable objects on show include the armor of a Japanese soldier, swords and furniture from the far east, and pieces from Presidential collections like the ceremonial objects of Barros Luco, a chair belonging to Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and a weapon once owned by Carlos Ibáñez del Campo.

Each weekend around 700 tourists visit the museum, while on weekdays most visitors come from schools. Over Chile’s bicentennial a record was achieved of 11,000 visits in just one day.

“Although we are often visited, our objective is to get closer to the people,” said the museum’s director in an interview with La Tercera. “We want to show we are a museum in constant renovation.”