Late last week, I returned to the ex-Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), where just the week before I had seen my nephew and others finish up work on a mural with a human rights theme. The ex-ESMA, of course, is now the admirable Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, dedicated to the memory of those who disappeared under Argentina’s most vicious dictatorship ever.
I had toured the ESMA before and, while I found it absorbing and instructive, it’s a harrowing experience that I don’t care to repeat. I did, however, want to visit the Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur (pictured above), a new construction on the ESMA grounds that expresses Argentina’s obsession with the Falkland Islands. I lived in the Islands for a year in 1986-7 while researching my doctoral dissertation in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and have returned several times since.
I expected little from this museum and, in that sense, it did not disappoint me. In summary, it’s an anachronistic exercise in self-righteous anti-colonialism that tells us more about the people who created it than it does about the Islands themselves. The creators, clearly, were more interested in historical grudges toward what they perceive as perfidious Albion, the illegitimate occupier of a British Overseas Territory, than in understanding the Islands and their residents on their own terms.
Occupying three stories of a luminous new construction, the museum begins with a selective ground-floor timeline that paints a 19th-century gaucho as a revolutionary nationalist against the British. It also romanticizes a clueless collection of armed Peronist kids who commandeered a plane from the mainland to the Islands in 1966 (see below) – without realizing there was no airport. To the surprise (and subsequent amusement) of locals, the pilot crash-landed on the soggy Stanley hippodrome and, after an overnight standoff with the local defense force, the hijackers surrendered and were returned to Argentina (removing the plane was a more complex task, but the incident could easily serve as the basis for an Ealing comedy).
Ironically, on the grounds of a facility otherwise dedicated to exposing human rights violations, the museum gives Argentina’s military dictatorship a pass except for displaying the deceptive propaganda (illustrated below) that convinced many Argentines they were winning even as their final ignominious surrender approached. It euphemistically refers to the military’s desembarco (landing) - as opposed to invasion - and completely ignores the impact on the Islanders themselves. In just a few hours, a town with just a handful of police became a police state under Colonel Patricio Dowling, a sadistic Irish-Argentine with a special antipathy toward the British.
Likewise, the museum says nothing about the fisheries conservation zone that has brought the Islands their current prosperity; in the tidy, graffiti-free capital of Stanley, residents don’t bother to lock their doors and even leave their car keys in the ignition. It completely ignores last year’s referendum in which Islanders expressed their satisfaction with their current status as an overseas territory.
The museum has one redeeming exhibit, a video salon featuring a 30-minute film by Argentine documentarian Raymundo Gleyzer, who traveled to Stanley from Montevideo on the supply ship RMS Darwin in 1966. Gleyzer takes for granted that the Islands are Argentine, but his footage of the Islanders at work and play (as seen in the video above) is outstanding, though the sound quality is poor (the museum apparently couldn’t be bothered with closed captioning, much less English subtitles).
I also found it interesting to see individuals I got to know 20 years later, during my own time there. Some people, most notably kids, are shy around Gleyzer’s camera, in what at the time was a literally insular community. In his direct contact with the Islanders, Gleyzer – who himself disappeared under Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship - demonstrates an ethnographic professionalism that’s lacking elsewhere in the museum. Because his work is available online, the Museo Malvinas is, in the end, a costly but unworthy addition to the ex-ESMA.
There is another, more recent Argentine documentary that incorporates some of Gleyzer’s footage, plus additional archival footage and outsider interviews that parrot the official government position. There is a token Islander in Las Islas del Viento (trailer above), but Alec Betts left the Islands for Argentina after the 1982 war, partly at least for personal reasons that he does not discuss. As in Gleyzer’s film, there are no subtitles and, in fact, there is no English-language text anywhere in the museum. That’s arguably appropriate, in an institution whose main goal is preaching to the choir.
In fact, the museum's only other English-language item, behind glass, is the translation of a book (pictured above) by naval historian Laurio Destefani. When I met Destefani in his Buenos Aires office in the mid-1980s - I had intended to ask him about some Spanish colonial documents - he greeted me with the statement that "For us, the Malvinas are a pact sealed in blood." That didn't leave much room for discussion, and neither does this museum.