On March 15 2019, The Traveling Museum of the Memory and Identity of Montes de María, opened its doors in the Colombian Caribbean. Nicknamed El Mochuelo, in honor of the region’s common songbird, the venue remembers the victims from 15 municipalities who lost their lives during the recent armed conflict in the country. From 1980 until the early 2000s, Colombians endured ongoing brutalities; massacres, kidnappings, targeted killings, forced displacement, bombings, and disappearances were widespread. In Montes de María, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the National Army committed over 117 atrocities.
Due to its location (between the Departments of Sucre and Bolívar) and wealth of natural resources, Montes de María has been highly coveted during the twentieth century, especially since the 1980s. Guerrillas, drug lords, the army, and paramilitaries disputed control of the area due to it’s access to the Caribbean Sea at the Gulf of Morrosquillo, which is a corridor for the commercialization of cocaine in the Department of Bolívar. This part of the country has great diversity of flora and fauna, and is propitious for agricultural production including corn, rice, cassava, yams, plantains, tobacco, coffee, and avocado, earning it’s nickname, the “Caribbean pantry,” due to the abundance of its produce.
It took 11 years for the community leaders of Montes de María to bring the museum to life. Due to the geography and environmental conditions of the area, the site had to be built with materials that would resist the intense heat and would be easy to carry and install.
The creators of El Mochuelo decided that a non-static structure better suited their process of healing from violence. A peripatetic venue encourages cultural exchanges and interactions among the inhabitants of the region and boosts their creativity by allowing the site not to have conventional glass cases and museological artefacts, such as pottery, paper documents, or material culture. Instead, the creators of El Mochuelo envisioned it as a space for interactive displays, pictures, videos, paintings, and other structures easy to set up and move around. The founders of the museum wanted the site and its exhibits to promote reflections on the peasant life of Montes de María, recreate the region’s oral traditions, and help survivors remember that they can rely on their culture to heal and move on from the violence they endured.
Territory, identity, and memory are the three thematic axes of the museum. The curators and producers of the venue believe that these topics are inclusive enough to enable El Mochuelo to become a space in which the residents of the region can recreate their traditional culture. At the Traveling Museum, territory becomes a tool that allows people to think about themselves as lead characters of their history. It addresses the body and spirit of the people of the region, represented in music, and other ancestral and historic traditions. The identity element refers to Montes de María inhabitants’ social organization, ways of thinking, imaginaries, and different cultural expressions. Memory, in turn, is meant to be a collective exercise, transcending the private sphere. The communities use their memory as a political tool to redefine themselves and their territories, allowing the 15 social groups of Montes de María to continuously construct this space.
One of the only pieces displayed at El Mochuelo that directly represents the armed conflict is the structure called the “Tree of Life,” which deserves special attention due to the names of the 700 victims that are displayed in its “branches”. The idea of the curators is to make visible tags or cards with the victims’ information—name, place of birth, and age at death—and to encourage more inhabitants of the region to make public the names of killed relatives and friends.
Like most Colombian memory sites, El Mochuelo does not receive funding from the state. Its resources come from international entities, such as the French Embassy in Bogotá. The Agencia Catalana de Cooperación al Desarrollo, AECID (Catalan Agency for International Development Cooperation), also funded the final part of the research for the museum. The lack of state funding demonstrates once again the limitations of the Colombian government in memorializing the suffering of victims and communities.
El Mochuelo opens every day of the week 4:00 pm until 11:00 pm. For more information about the museum and its community process go to https://mimemoria.org/
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Jimena Perry is an anthropologist currently finishing a PhD in History at the University of Texas at Austin. “I am interested in public history so I have worked in museums, researching, curating, writing scripts for exhibitions, as a guide, and as an interpreter of ethnographic, archaeological, and art exhibitions. Other of my interests include memory and trauma studies, digital humanities, history of violence and how museums and other public places represent atrocities, and who decides what is to be remembered.”