Museum of San Pedro De Atacama, Northern Chile

  • Patricia AyalaEmail author
  • Fernanda Kalazich
Living reference work entry


While European nation-states were using archaeology and museums to develop their national identities, the latter also started a great diaspora, expanding to the Americas during the first half of the nineteenth century, going hand in hand with the independence of Spanish and Portuguese colonies (Swain 2007). Like their European counterparts, the new American nation-states were constructed following the ahistorical principle of homogeneity (Gnecco 2002) unifying their peoples through the appeal to a singular past and a sense of commonality, excluding and denying the existence of culturally differentiated groups within them (Benavides 2001).

American museums are associated with colonial practices of excavation, collection, and exhibition of human bodies and indigenous objects. Through these devices, archaeology provided the scientific means to demonstrate the racial superiority of the colonizers and justify the dispossession of indigenous lands, knowledge, bodies, and collections. With the establishment of nation-states, both museums and archaeology contributed to nationalist discourses (Díaz-Andreu 2007), either through their interpretations or through the material evidence that allowed constructing the history of these new imagined communities (Anderson 1991). The early enactment of laws that reaffirmed the state ownership of archaeological heritage also implied the heritagization and nationalization of indigenous archaeological bodies and objects (Rodríguez 2010). Parallel to this, European culture and values prevailed over those of indigenous peoples, who were considered part of the past and were therefore subject to domination and museization.

It is impossible to dissociate the museums’ histories from the histories of indigenous peoples that inhabited and inhabit the current national territories. In the last six decades, it is also difficult to separate museums and archaeology from indigenous struggles over their cultural, territorial, and sovereign rights (Fine-Dare 2002). In this context, indigenous leaders and intellectuals have questioned the colonial scientific practices of excavation, collection, and exhibition (Deloria 1988; Mamani 1989), as well as the treatment of their ancestors and sacred objects (Fforde 2002; Garcia 2016). In North America, decolonization activism was identified with the “Native American Museum Movement” (Arthur 2014), at whose heart the activism of repatriation and reburial was installed (Riding In 2005). In South America, the indigenous critique to archaeologists and museums occurred more recently, especially from the 1990s with the implementation of multicultural policies and the visibility of ethnic demands (Gnecco and Ayala 2011). The lack of participation, community permission, and information about research projects, as well as their demands to manage archaeological sites and museums, is central to indigenous claims. The excavation of cemeteries, exhibition of human remains, and removal of objects from their territories are also critical aspects within indigenous contestations. While there is a great diversity of indigenous peoples in the Americas, several of these demands, in some cases all, have been used as banners of criticism toward archaeology and museums by indigenous leaders and intellectuals. The crisis of representation of archaeology and anthropology and the discussions regarding their authoritative voice to speak for or about the “other” have also been at the center of this debate, while indigenous peoples claim they are the ones who must speak for themselves ( Deloria 1988).

The repercussions of indigenous activism have been visible in museums, which aside from critically assessing their histories have also generated discussions about new practices and methodologies for indigenous inclusion and decolonization (Lonetree 2012; Phillips 2011). Criticisms regarding the treatment of indigenous sacred bodies and objects stand out not only because of their repercussions on national and international laws and codes of ethics but also on working protocols for collections and exhibits (Fine-Dare 2002; Endere and Ayala 2011; Arthur 2014; Ametrano 2015). There have also been important changes in archaeology and despite being marginal approaches with respect to dominant archaeology, new forms of relationship with indigenous peoples are currently being sought through decolonial, public, community, collaborative, and indigenous archaeologies (Watkins 2005; Smith and Martin Wobst 2005; Atalay 2006; Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008; Silliman and Ferguson 2010; Montenegro 2014).

In the following pages, we will address these and other debates, focusing on the case of the Museum of San Pedro de Atacama and the relationship of its archaeologists with the Atacameño indigenous people. We believe that a critical analysis of its history and taking charge of it will allow us to shed a light over new types of relationships and collaborative works between archaeologists and indigenous peoples. As Shepherd said in the Virtual Forum: Archaeology and Decolonization: “Before understanding or appreciating where we want to go or what we want to become, we need to understand what we have been and the forces and contexts that have made us what we are” (Haber and Gnecco 2007: 404–405).

A Brief History of the Museum

The Atacameño people are the indigenous inhabitants of northern Chile; their homeland centers around the Atacama Desert (Region of Antofagasta), known as the driest desert in the world (Fig. 1). The extreme aridity of the environment has favored the preservation of archaeological sites and objects, organic materials such as wood and textiles, and where naturally mummified remains of human beings are not uncommon. For this reason the Atacama Desert has become a center of archaeological research. The Atacameños have coexisted with archaeologists for more than a century and with the Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama for 60 years. Throughout their history this indigenous people has undergone a series of drastic changes, from the Spanish conquest to the establishment of the Chilean neoliberal multicultural state. These changes are reflected in their integration to industrial mining in the twentieth century and more recently to the tourism industry, which has led traditional agropastoral economy to a secondary position (Vilches et al. 2015). Another consequence of this process was the loss of their language Kunza; the last native speakers of Kunza died in the 1950s. Despite these changes, the Atacameños retain their cultural traditions. In the last 20 years, a process of recognizing and strengthening their identity has made them critical stakeholders in the archaeological and political courses that affect them (Ayala 2008, 2011).
Fig. 1

Region of Antofagasta, traditional homeland of the Atacameño people. (Map by Mariana Ugarte)

Archaeology in the Atacama Desert began shortly before the territory was annexed to Chile following the War of the Pacific with Bolivia and Peru in the late nineteenth century. The interest of the Chilean government to assimilate the indigenous peoples that inhabited this region prompted the development of archaeology, as it was important to know the indigenous past to carry out this process. Moreover, producing and possessing information about this territory (geological, archaeological, sociocultural) was a strategy of symbolic ownership amidst border disputes (see also Romero 2003; Ayala 2008; Kalazich 2015). In the first half of the twentieth century, several local and foreign archaeologists were investigating in this area, including Max Uhle ( 1913), Ricardo Latcham ( 1936), Aureliano Oyarzún ( 1910), and Grete Mostny ( 1949). However, the arrival of Gustavo Le Paige in 1953, a Belgian Jesuit priest and amateur archaeologist, was crucial to the development of archaeology in the Atacama as well as to the notoriety of this region internationally. He conducted excavations at a variety of sites along the Atacama Basin, rock shelters, mountain-top ritual sites, open camps, and lithic quarries, although it was the excavation of funerary contexts which characterized the focus of his work as well as the provenance of the collection (Núñez 1993). It was with these materials and human remains that Le Paige inaugurated the Archaeological Museum in 1957 in San Pedro de Atacama’s Parish House (casa parroquial). In 1958 this museum was incorporated to Universidad del Norte. In 1962, the priest began the construction of a purposefully built precinct to hold and display the ever-increasing archaeological collection, which he did with the aid of military conscripts, Atacameño builders and some of the Atacameño children that usually accompanied him in his excavations (Núñez 1993). In 1963, during the celebration of the First Chilean Archaeology Conference in San Pedro de Atacama, Le Paige inaugurated one pavilion of the new building. Later, two more were built and the museum finished with a total of three pavilions: one for the permanent exhibit, another for laboratories, offices and the library, and a third one for the storage of the collections. In 1991, with contributions from Minera Escondida, the Treasury Room was built to display the golden objects collection. (The collection is made mainly by golden vases and plaques from the Larache archaeological site in San Pedro de Atacama. Minera Escondida Limitada, operated by BHP Billiton, which provided the funds to build the room is one of the largest transnational mining companies in the Antofagasta Region. Through CSR image-cleansing policies and Fundación Minera Escondida the company channels resources to fund educational and social participation programs in the Antofagasta Region.) This building would work, with some later additions, until 2015, when it was demolished for the construction of a new museum.

After the death of Gustavo Le Paige in 1980, the direction of the Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama was taken up by various archaeologists who motivated the flow of visiting researchers and the increase of its permanent academic staff. In 1984 the Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Museo (Institute of Archaeological Research and Museum – hereafter IIAM) was created, from the merger between the Department of Archaeology at Universidad del Norte (later to become Universidad Católica del Norte, UCN) and the Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama. While the growth of the academic staff has been gradual over time, from 2006 onward the number of researchers has increased with the opening of their postgraduate programs (in which the doctorate program is taught jointly with Universidad de Tarapacá in Arica).

In 2002, the Museology Area was created, initially, to stabilize the archaeological collection left by Le Paige and his successors, since a majority of the objects and human bodies of this collection were damaged by the absence of conservation treatments and appropriate storage facilities. Due to increasing contestation to the museum by the indigenous community, this task became an institutional priority in those years. Shortly after the museographic work to improve the permanent exhibit and create temporary exhibitions began. After 20 years of the exhibit created by Le Paige, in the mid-1980s the museum opened a new permanent exhibition to the public. Because human bodies continued to have a central role in the new museographic display, indigenous leaders demanded their removal from the exhibition. For this reason, renewing the permanent exhibit also became an important goal for the museum in the twenty-first century.

In 2004, due to the increase of indigenous criticisms against the museum, also related to demands of community participation, having a voice in excavation permits, the management of sites and the museum, as well as the custody of archaeological heritage, the Unit of Relations with the Atacameño Community (URCA) was created. This area of public relations was especially focused in building and maintaining the ties between the Atacameño people and this institution (Ayala 2008, 2014). It was also in charge of the heritage education program called Andean School (Escuela Andina). The Area of Education was created in 2009, with the aim of promoting and disseminating the local cultural heritage through guidance services and educational activities. The opening of these new areas generated several changes within and outside the institution, since previously the IIAM had been characterized by a strong emphasis on research, leaving aside the development of museological and educational programs.

After almost 50 years of operation, in 2009 the museum was found to have structural damage which deemed the building dangerous for both people – museum workers and visitors – and the archaeological collection. Although at first the university had planned improvements to the building, the regional government got involved laying out a multimillion-worth project financed by the National Fund for Regional Development through a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank. The idea was to establish an ultramodern and spacious museum in the so-called archaeological capital of Chile, to be administered jointly by Universidad Católica del Norte, the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños (Atacameño Peoples Council), and the state (Regional Government and Municipality of San Pedro de Atacama), through a form of organization and structure that has not been defined yet.

The construction part of the project implied the total demolition of the previous structure, for which it was thought in two stages: first, the construction of a temporary precinct to hold the entire archaeological collection and locate the research space for permanent staff and visiting fellows while the construction of the new museum took place. The conservation consultants worked with the Le Paige museum conservation team during 18 months to properly catalogue and establish all conservation measures to move some 400,000 objects, 5000 human skulls, and 400 mummified human remains. The second stage is the construction of the new museum, which was to begin in January 2015 and be finished by March 2016. This step could not start until the entire collection was safely moved and stored in the temporary facility. The movement of the archaeological collection was finalized in 2016; it was composed of some 12,000 boxes of various materials. The temporary structure was built with the appropriate infrastructure according to the requirements of conservation of the collection, guaranteeing its protection as long as needed. It also includes spaces for the continuity of the research activities conducted at the institute and museum: laboratories, offices documentation center, and classroom, among others. There were, however, several problems with the implementation of the second stage of the project, as to this date the new museum has not been built. At the place lay the ruins of the old museum, which was partially demolished shortly after the collection was moved.

Since the new museum project implied a new but unknown organizational scheme with other stakeholders, between 2015 and 2016 the IIAM took precautions to safeguard both its research unit and archaeological collection, therefore “dividing” the IIAM into the Instituto de Arqueología y Antropología – IAA, and the Museum R.P. Gustavo Le Paige, each with its own director, but under the umbrella of the IIAM.

In 2017, the IIAM opened a communications post, which has had an important role over the last 2 years in the development of outreach initiatives and the activation of institutional social networks. The ninth version of the Andean School was applied for by this unit, participating also in the publication of an archaeological atlas for children (see Figueroa 2018) and a series of lectures on heritage and conservation. Due to the “temporary” location of the IIAM in the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama (Fig. 2), the use of social media and regular news updates in the website and local newspapers have been fundamental to maintain links with the town and its publics.
Fig. 2

Original and temporary locations of the Archaeological Museum in San Pedro de Atacama. (Illustration by Ignacio Azócar)

The Museum’s Relationship with the Atacameño People

The Beginning and Professionalization of the Museum

Since its inception, this institution showcased the scientific work of Le Paige and his desire as a collector. Le Paige excavated a variety of archaeological sites with an emphasis on cemeteries. As mentioned before, Le Paige and the archaeologists who came after him eventually collected over 5000 human skulls, 400 mummified human remains, and 400,000 objects. Therefore, the exhibits of this museum were characterized by the presence of human bodies and funerary objects from pre-Hispanic tombs. While Le Paige was one of the defenders of the historical continuity of the Atacameños, this was not meant to validate their opinions. The Atacameños’ critique referring to Le Paige’s archaeological work is mainly associated to the excavation of hundreds of burials, a fact that seen in the context of local practices and discourses from that time went against their values and beliefs (see also Spahni 1967: 131–132). The Atacameños refer to archaeological sites as places of the abuelos (grandparents) or gentiles (heathens), spaces and things that must be respected and feared in which the “land or the abuelos can catch you and get you sick,” reasons for which they should not be disturbed nor visited, or objects taken from them. The abuelos are the ancestors of the Atacameño people. Le Paige was aware of these local beliefs; however his scientific interest for Atacameño archaeology led him to deny the practices and discourses of the indigenous population, together with the cultural meanings that the archaeological remains portray for them. His attitude was not only coherent with the political context as well as with the development of archaeology in those years but also with his practice as a priest by which he must have had considered important to eradicate these “pagan beliefs” in a crusade of his own, similar to the “extirpation of idolatries.” Taking into account the power of Le Paige as a scientific-religious authority in a social and political context that did not favor indigenous peoples, it was difficult for Atacameños to express their disagreement regarding the excavation of archaeological burials (Ayala 2011).

There were people who were outraged at him but also I do not know if they manifested it or showed it in a soft way or in very different ways that made him rethink his attitude regarding the work he was developing as archeology. (Atacameño 1, 2004) (By petition of the majority of the people interviewed, their names remain concealed (Ayala 2008).)

Also, some people stopped attending mass because of their strong discontent with Le Paige archaeological activities:

…with Father Le Paige many people drifted apart from the church when he started to work the archaeological part because well, the father did not hide much what he had, he had a lot of skulls. (Atacameño 2, 2003)

In this context, Le Paige reproduced colonial relations of denial with the Atacameños, since, despite knowing of the disagreement the communities held regarding his archaeological practice, he continued excavating cemeteries and displaying human bodies, which created a distance between the museum and the local community. Discrepancies surrounding his archaeological practices were also rose in the private realm, in the families where children that accompanied Le Paige to archaeological sites were reproached, a context in which these fears were not expressed to the father.

On the other hand, Le Paige was aided in his excavations by some Atacameño children that would later be part of the staff of the museum, as well as some of their offspring. Their words about Le Paige are of gratitude and kindness; most of them are or were practitioners of Atacameño traditions and concerned with the dissemination of their culture. Every year, the Atacameño families close to the priest organize a mass and luncheon for his birthday, to which all museum and institute staff are invited.

Le Paige was concerned with the objects staying in the region instead of being shipped elsewhere, entering private or public collections in some distant country or other cities of Chile (Le Paige 1957; Núñez 1993); the looting of archaeological sites had already began, so the priest would tell the children to let him know first if they heard of any discovery, which he rewarded with powder milk and other groceries. At least that way the objects stayed in the region (Núñez 1993). In addition, not only did the father conduct archaeological digs following his own explorations, but also people would approach him and tell him about archaeological remains they had found in their lands or directly took objects to him.

Thus, the relationship of Le Paige with the Atacameño people, although framed within structural asymmetrical power relations characterized by the denial of ethnic agency, had also some nuances, especially in the relationships built between the priest and the people closer to him (Ayala 2008, 2011). (For an interesting study of the religious, political, and intellectual career of G. Le Paige, linked to the analysis of republican colonialism, military indigenism, and the history of local anthropology, see Pavez 2012.)

During the late 1960s, doctoral researchers from Columbia University conducted their studies in the Antofagasta Region. They came with grants from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Chile Exploration Company (Guggenheim brothers), and the Chuquicamata Copper Company, PLC, a joint society between the Chile Exploration Company and Codelco (see, e.g., Pollard 1970; Druss 1976). US public-private involvement in foreign research contributed to the dissemination of positivistic theoretical frameworks in Chilean archaeology, exhibiting the traits of imperialist archaeology (see Trigger 1984). (US research interventionism abroad had begun with Project Camelot (1964–1965) (Galtung 1968), with Latin America as one of its priority regions. Although the project was short-lived, as seen above funding continued being allocated to foreign research in different fields of the social sciences.)

With the death of Le Paige and the arrival of new archaeologists in the 1980s, there were some changes to the museum. These changes were framed in a more professional approach to archaeology and the replacement of some exhibits from the time of Le Paige. However, the new exhibits continued to represent the Atacameños as part of the past and continued to use human bodies and funerary objects. Parallel to this, archaeologists continued excavating cemeteries and thus continued transgressing and denying local beliefs regarding the abuelos or ancestors. Therefore, the local community perceived the museum as a place of exclusion and was regarded with distrust. Some Atacameños claim that they “hated” this institution and forbade the entrance of their families to its facilities.

There were at least 10 years of torment, of madness. Of torment really. I came to think that 80% of the town people were against us and the remaining 20% was indifferent.... I’m talking about that period at the end of the 80’s. And I thought that all the effort that I had done was worthless because things did not improve, they were worse and the attitude of the Atacameños, at the same time they begin to accept their atacameñidad, they rejected it more. (Archeologist 6, 2004)

Despite this conflict some attempts were made by archaeologists to include the local community through guided visits to archaeological excavations. These activities were well received by some member of the Atacameño community: “Look, I think it was a pretty relationship, at least I had a good experience, but that was me, this was around 82” (Atacameño 2, 2003).

At the time, the national context was that of Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973–1990). Despite the closure of universities and/or academic departments, and the persecution, detention, and disappearance/execution of social scientists all along the country (Garreton 2005), San Pedro became some sort of a safe haven for archaeologists to continue developing research. The appointment of a military rector at UCN that was an archaeology and anthropology enthusiast was quite significant for the survival of the discipline and its practitioners in the region. In parallel, historizing critical geopolitical spaces, such as the regions of northern Chile – which had been until the 1900s part of Peru and Bolivia – continued to be an important strategy of territorial control, as it was also at the wake of the twentieth century (see above; Ayala 2008; Romero 2003). In addition, the presence of US scholars in the region must have deemed this region as non-insurgent.

The Museum in the Multicultural Era

With the return of democracy in 1990 after 17 years of dictatorship and the enactment of the Indigenous Law in 1993, Chile started to be represented as a multicultural nation and thereby active in imposing a change in relations between the state and indigenous peoples. The reconfiguration of the Chilean state in the democratic period goes hand in hand with the installation of neoliberal multiculturalism, which generated a new ideological, legal, and institutional scenario oriented toward indigenous peoples. With the participation and recognition of cultural difference as a new art of government, culture began to occupy a central place in public debate and in the identity construction of indigenous populations and the new Chilean nation. Since the state had previously disseminated a nationalist discourse of rupture between the indigenous past and present, the multicultural political discourse changed the relationships of these populations with their past, when the Indigenous Law suggested that the ethnic groups are descendants of pre-Hispanic societies. This law also integrated indigenous peoples to the national history, and this led Chilean people to reimagine themselves as a multiethnic nation and to reinvent themselves through a long-standing linear temporality, which places the pre-Hispanic past at the origins of the multicultural Chilean nation. On the other hand, the re-elaboration of the past of ethnic groups in Chile has been a process of readjustment, tensions, and contradictions between the preexisting notions of identity, ancestrality, and temporality and those imposed by the multicultural state (Ayala 2014).

Initially, the Indigenous Law did not consider the Atacameños as one of the country’s ethnic groups; the Atacameño leaders needed to meet a number of demands of information to be included in this legislation. The information requested included archaeological research to validate their historical continuity. In this context, Atacameños went to the Museum of San Pedro de Atacama looking for antecedents as an indigenous people. Together with archaeologists they gathered information that could guarantee the chronological depth of this ethnic group, traveling later to the capital Santiago to process their recognition. Once legally recognized by the state, the Atacameño raised a number of criticisms and demands against archaeology and the museum of San Pedro de Atacama. However, archaeologists of this institution “were locked in a glass bubble” according to the director at that time, Agustin Llagostera, and denied the indigenous demands. Archaeologists were increasingly immersed in their research problems. Under these circumstances, archaeologists were involved in disputes over control and rights to archaeological heritage. This was clearly reflected in the process of protecting and managing archaeological sites, driven by the state and ethnic groups. In this case, archaeologists were engaged in political alliances that sought to define the ownership of indigenous heritage and the type of projects to be conducted.

During the 1990s, the museum’s exhibition continued stereotyping the Atacameños as part of the past, and the human bodies continued to occupy a central place in the exhibits. At the same time, ethnic leaders claimed they did not feel represented by this institution and made demands that they no longer wanted to be treated as “museum pieces” and said “were a living culture and not mere objects.” In this scenario, while the Chilean multicultural state acknowledged the existence of the Atacameños in this decade, the museum of San Pedro de Atacama perpetuated the image of decline of these populations by focusing on pre-Hispanic periods in its exhibits.

For four consecutive years, every October 12 (Columbus Day) the Atacameños lit candles in front of the museum in San Pedro de Atacama, in consideration of the ancestors held by the museum. Leaders of the indigenous group Zhali Lickan Ckappur once took over the museum, in circumstances that the professionals of this institution do not acknowledge saying: “It was not a proper takeover.” At the same time, Atacameño workers from this institution remember this event:

2002 seems to me, 2001, because it was the last protest they made. They arrived at the Museum around 4 in the afternoon and entered. They threw, well, a llijlla (Andean textile used for ceremonies) on the floor, they put coca leaves ... [they started] doing a pago (Offering to Mother Earth (Pachamama)) there. You did not really understand what it is because it had no aloja (Local drink made with the pods of Algarrobo (Prosopis) trees), it did not have coca, it did not have alcohol that was the other drink that the old people consumed ... nothing, at least corn chicha, nothing. So making a pago with what they never consumed is like weird. Also on the flexit floor they were not going to be able to throw it to the Pacha (Mother Earth), nothing. Then they were there talking a few words and then went out and there again began to make a pago at the entrance, on the right, there they knelt and there they were giving the fight.(Atacameño 6, 2004)

According to the archaeologists working at the museum, these events were treated with indifference because, “we were very distanced, we had devoted ourselves to the scientific academic work” (Archaeologist 7, 2004). In 2000, on the eve of October 12, there was an attempt to burn down the Museum of San Pedro de Atacama. For the archaeologists from the museum, this was a manifestation of the Atacameño community, they stated that this was “the climax of the rupture between the institution, academia, and the indigenous community” (Archaeologist 7, 2004). The situation was not handled as an institutional problem associated with the relations with the community but as a danger for the museum and the archaeologists.

No substantive decision was made. Because for me the underlying situation was not only to recognize the need that we had to be more active with the community, not to be something so alien to them, but to do something. (Archeologist 6, 2004)

This distancing of relations, or lack thereof, evidences a denial of the Atacameños as a subject of interaction – the denial of their right to have an opinion about archaeological practice and a lack of acknowledgment of the value of such opinion. Despite the existing demands and critiques to the discipline, the archaeologists have ignored them and marginalized themselves from the process.

In response to this conflicting context, in 2001 there was a change in relations between the museum and the Atacameños; the institution began to take actions to address the problem. However, this was accomplished without an internal discussion concerning relationships with the indigenous community. The museum began its process of openness to Atacameño participation without a clear policy. First, in 2001 the museum organized “roundtable discussions” with leaders of the Atacameño community. Some participants in the first discussions found it somehow “cathartic” with moments of tension between archaeologists and Atacameños. At the second discussion in 2003 according to some ethnic leaders, a new museum project was announced without much dialogue; for the archaeologists it was an opportunity to communicate about the activities they were carrying out. In 2005 the third discussion took place with the aim of acknowledging the perceptions, interests, and sensibilities of the local population, with the intent of opening discussions so as to create an institutional policy regarding relations with the community; however these discussions did not produce a clear policy.

In 2002 the Andean School was created, an annual program of heritage education from which scientific discourse is disseminated from within the museum and other universities in northern Chile. Since its inception this project was funded by national and international institutions (National Monuments Council, National Indigenous Development Corporation, Origins Program/Ministry of Development and Planning/Inter-American Development Bank); thus their approach is strongly associated with state indigenous policy. This program had 20 places for Atacameño students who had classes in archaeology, anthropology, history, geography, ecology, and heritage. In the first 8 years of this program, there was a growing interest from the Atacameño community to be a part of the Andean School. In 2008, this program became a Diploma on Heritage Education. Talking about this school, the Atacameños assume the lack of technical skills in their communities: “we need technical advice, technical support, technical assistance: lawyers, anthropologists, archaeologists, but positive, not negative, with a high point of view, not that speculate” (Atacameño 8, 2004). Also, the Atacameño students used their participation in the Andean School as an opportunity to present old and new demands to the museum. Until today, it is a program that has significant impact in transforming the relationship between this institution and the indigenous community. It has also influenced the changing public image of the museum, which is now represented as an open space for indigenous participation. The Andean School operated for eight seasons and was then shut down in 2010 due to lack of funding and matching agendas. As will be seen in the following pages, this program will open again in 2018.

As mentioned above, the institutional opening produced by the Andean School led to the creation in 2004 of an area specially dedicated to ethnic ties with the museum, the Unit of Relations with the Atacameño Community (URCA). This position was in charge of the formulation and execution of outreach programs, organization of dialogue tables, the reception and answer to petitions for professional consultancies, or the museum’s participation in community activities. The work developed through a mediator was welcomed by indigenous communities and associated organizations since they had a specific person in the museum to make demands and petitions. However, an important issue brought about with this modality was that it was a way of establishing a relation with the Atacameños from the outside, since the direct relation was delegated to a mediator. The political and strategic character of this position must not be overlooked, which was created as a response to the conflicts risen between archaeologists and the Atacameño community (Ayala 2011). This area was shut down in 2011 due to changes in the direction of the IIAM.

Parallel to this PR position, the institution initiated a community museum outreach program and a research project developed by the Atacameños on Atacameño ethnoastronomy. In 2007 the museum removed the human bodies or abuelos from the permanent exhibit after a year of bimonthly meetings between museum professionals and community representatives. At the same time, modifications were made to the museographic display text including a brief story about the history and contemporary life of the Atacameños. With these actions the museum began the process of accepting the Atacameños as the historical occupants of the land and their status as a living culture.

It can certainly be said that there has been a major shift in relations between the museum of San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacameño community since the beginning of this century. However, it cannot be said that the museum has decolonized its archaeological practices. In analyzing the inner workings of programs developed for indigenous participation, power asymmetries have been reproduced by this institution. Mainly that the decisions made concerning indigenous participation have been made without the participation of the Atacameños.

The roundtable discussions conducted by the museum have not always considered the concerns of indigenous leaders. In addition, these meetings had no set agenda; in 10 years there were only three meetings of any importance to the Atacameño community. On the other hand, while the Andean School created a space for the participation of the Atacameño people, the museum limited and controlled their participation. In fact, the Atacameños were integrated as students and visitors of this institution and did not participate in decisions about the Andean School program or the museum. An example of this was the indigenous demand that Atacameño teachers be included on an equal footing with the professional teachers employed by the Andean School; this demand was unmet by the fact that the museum decided the level of inclusion of these Atacameño teachers. Another disconnection was between the discourse of community involvement of some teachers of this program and their professional practice. Some of the archaeologists who taught at the Andean School were involved in environmental assessment projects that threatened the interests of the Atacameños. This has been one of the strongest criticisms from the Atacameño community (Ayala 2008; Marcos 2010). (At present, and as part of a commitment to ethical research, IIAM academics do not participate in environmental impact assessments or act as consultants for the mining companies operating in the area nor do they participate in calls for grants made by these companies.)

The program to remove the human remains from the permanent exhibit has been criticized both by researchers at the museum and Atacameño leaders. It was considered that the representation of indigenous communities was not inclusive enough. However, its greatest effect has been to silence the discussion of the reburial of archaeological human bodies or abuelos. This was one issue that the museum was not willing to discuss in those years; the bodies were removed from the display only to be deposited in storage areas specially constructed inside the museum.

The absence of an institutional policy that guided the participation of the indigenous community has affected the programs undertaken by the museum. Until today, the characteristics of the indigenous programs as that of education and outreach programs depend more on personal rather than institutional agendas. Therefore, changes in management affect the way forward in the ethnic relations and resources allocated to it, which historically have been scarce. This was more than clear with the closure of URCA.

As we saw in previous pages, when analyzing the spaces of indigenous participation opened by the museum in San Pedro de Atacama, the educational, public relations and management of archaeology aspects stand out, which has been installed as the new disciplinary format and the “must” be for many professionals. This tendency conforms to what Ayala (2014) defines as multicultural archaeology, an approach which recognizes indigenous people, opens archaeology to their participation, or accepts the indigenous property of heritage. However, this ends up being a mere formalism to continue practicing an archaeology rather than questioning its power and place of enunciation (see Dawdy 2009; La Salle 2010). It is a traditional archaeology that conforms to the mandates of multiculturalism, a waist adjustment characterized by talks and outreach courses that promote “restricted and controlled indigenous participation.” Eventually, this is followed by the participation of community members as labor in the excavations and the cleaning of materials, without having a voice in the design, formulation, development, interpretation, and/or results of the project itself or in the taking of decisions on recovered collections (see Kalazich 2015). However, it is also true that multicultural archaeology has opened up spaces of indigenous participation that did not exist previously, as well as debates on the social and political consequences of archaeology highlighting the difficulties of articulating theory and practice in building new relations with communities.

The Demolition of the Museum Building

In recent years, the demolition of Le Paige’s museum in 2015 produced new conflicts with the local community. The new museum project included both the building (storage space for the archaeological collection, laboratories, offices, exhibition spaces) and the museography: scripts (written discourses) and displays (visual discourses). Because public funds were to be used, the project was executed through a national request for tenders, thus outsourcing a decision-making process that by all means required local participation and discussion. The project had been submitted as an Environmental Impact Declaration (DIA in Spanish) to the Environmental Impact Assessment System (SEIA) and within it to a public consultation process. Such consultation is more of a screen, non-binding and participation is minimal. Indigenous communities would later claim that the project should have gone through indigenous consultation as established by the 169 ILO Convention (which is also non-binding, but the forms of participation are more accepted by indigenous communities than the former).

This project also created different reactions within the diverse stakeholders involved in or affected by cultural heritage decision-making, social science and heritage research sectors, the local communities, professional unions, scientific societies, the institute and museum staff, and tourism operators, among others. Some were enthusiastic about the idea of an avant-garde museum in San Pedro de Atacama’s main square; it would contribute to the quality of the services offered to the tourists, boosting the town’s notoriety worldwide. Others emphasized in the improvement of the storage conditions, especially that of the abuelos or Atacameño ancestors. In this regard, the measures taken by the conservation specialists were not only technical as to meet international conservation standards with acid-free boxes, barcodes, and a thorough documentation of the collection but also, and more importantly, were borne out of a profound respect and care for the ancient ones, built on local knowledge regarding funerary practices and rites, which was possible due to the work of Atacameño women in this unit.

Some were critical about the architectural design of the new ultramodern museum; its size, construction materials, and design proper were put into question due to its location in a rural town; the emphasis should be on the local communities, not necessarily the tourists, some said.

Yet others were concerned with the legacy of priest Le Paige. The museum building – its materiality – was, after 60 years, part of the cultural heritage of San Pedro de Atacama and its history, of the history of archaeology, and of the archaeological heritage of this region. Thus, it should have been preserved as a ruin, an archaeological site, locating the new museum project elsewhere. How is it that heritage professionals seek to erase critical aspects of San Pedro’s past? It seemed illogical to some that the National Monuments Council would authorize the demolition of a building that had such an impact in the town. For others however, it was part of a history that was better to erase, which also speaks of the impact of the museum, both materially and symbolically. Anyhow, the land on which the museum was built was private property but ceded in perpetuity to UCN as long as it continued to have a museum in place; thus building the museum elsewhere was not an option.

Unquestionably, the museum building was not in conditions to continue storing the collection or being habitable for much longer. The heavy winds, occasional sand storms, and rain were a threat to the museum’s dead and living. But maybe, it needed not to be completely destroyed; the new museum could have incorporated an architectural testimony of Le Paige’s museum within its structure, for example. There seemed to have been a lack of discussion regarding what heritage is, its meanings, histories, and purposes, that went beyond the regional government’s desire to carry out such a project, and focused instead on a local scale, on a situated architectural and museographical design.

Parallel to this process, with both the opening of a communications position at the institute and a current administration more sensitive to indigenous claims at both university and institute level, several steps have been taken on the side of education and outreach, such as the reopening of the Andean School in its ninth version; the opening of a small exhibit at the temporary precinct, which displays a part of the archaeological collection organized by materiality; and a more straightforward communication with some indigenous communities and the Atacameño People’s Council, which is also fueled by a new set of relationships and interests.

Regarding the Andean School, its relaunch in 2018 was related to the ever-growing interest on behalf of the local population – native and non-native – in the local past, in acquiring scientific knowledge and tools, especially with the growth of tourism on the one hand and the ever-present mining industry seeking to exploit the resources found within their ancestral territories on the other. The funding for this new version of the Andean School was obtained through a grant from the National Funds for Culture and Arts; most teachers and the facilities used were provided by the IIAM and also included Atacameño teachers. The Diploma consisted of nine modules taught by specialists in each area: environment and first settlers of the Atacama; Center South Andean iconography; geo-heritage; rock art; symbolism, celebrations and rituals in the Andes, and linguistic heritage; state, communities, and political ecology; multivocal values of cultural heritage; and heritage conservation. Like in previous years, this program received a high number of applications; from 70 applications 30 were selected, of which 22 were Atacameños. One of the current problems of the Andean School, as stated for previous versions, is the lack of permanent funding, thus subject to competitive grants that may or may not pull through.

The museum exhibit at the temporary precinct emerged after the realization that the stay would not be that temporary but could rather last 5 more years. Due to the location of this temporary precinct slightly outside of the town in a barren land plot and the inexistence of a museum display that would bring school children, local people, and tourists, there was no presence of the IIAM in the San Pedro cultural scene. Thus, the museum area created a showcasing space for the most emblematic materials and objects, which was inaugurated by the end of 2017. No human remains are included in this exhibit. Since then, primary and secondary school children, local community members, tourists, and researchers have been able to see and know about the fundamentals of the archaeological objects held at the museum. It was also available for the Andean School students.

During 2018, some strings to bring the museum project back to life started being pulled, and a productive and critical dialogue has just began between several stakeholders – Atacameño Peoples Council, IIAM, UCN, regional government, and municipality – addressing what kind of museum it should be, the types of community participation sought, and how will the stakeholders be articulated in the future management of the museum.

Final Words

The history of the museum of San Pedro de Atacama, located in the main town of the Atacameño people, is closely related to the history of this indigenous community. We cannot talk about this museum without mentioning its relations with the Atacameño people, which have been changing throughout their 60 years of coexistence and have fluctuated between relationships of denial, dialogue, negotiation, mediation, and collaboration. The different sociopolitical contexts experienced by Chilean society, in general, and indigenous people, in particular, have influenced the relationships between archaeologists from this museum and the Atacameño people.

Since the establishment of the Chilean multicultural state in the 1990s and the empowerment of indigenous peoples, the Atacameños stand out as one of the main stakeholders regarding the archaeological heritage in their territory. Disputes and conflicts between the museum and Atacameño leaders have become visible, and, despite the changes in this institution, different opinions and interests persist, although agreements have sometimes been reached as well as collaborative experiences. Depending on the context and the agents involved, certain events have triggered disputes, conflicts, and estrangements in the multicultural era. The most recent is the construction of the new museum, which evidences a historical dispute over control, custody, and rights over the archaeological heritage in San Pedro de Atacama. At the same time it shows the changing nature of Atacameño’s heritage values, since the museum created by Le Paige, once considered for some indigenous leaders as the icon of a history of denial and domination, currently is valued by others as part of their history and heritage.

However, while the museum of San Pedro de Atacama has built new relationships with the Atacameños in the last 20 years and has marked a milestone in this field, asymmetries of power still exist based on the fact that Atacameño people are not fully integrated in decision-making processes. It remains to be seen if the organizational structure of the future museum will be able to critically and consciously address these power imbalances and move toward decolonizing and decolonized relationships.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Abbe MuseumBar HarborUSA
  2. 2.Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige, CONICYT PAI/Concurso Nacional Inserción en la AcademiaUniversidad Católica del NorteSan Pedro de AtacamaChile

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sonia Archila
    • 1
  1. 1.Departament of AnthropologyUniversidad de los AndesBogotáColombia