Photo of the outside of the Museum of Memory

Chilean history: Visiting Museo de la Memoria in Santiago

Visiting museums or memorials that describe particularly dark parts of a country’s history is often something that travelers skip.  It’s somewhat understandable, who wants to spend their precious vacation time learning about depressing events?

However, even for you museum haters, there are certain museums where compelling history and an effective and modern display tell a story that everyone should hear. The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (The Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago is one of those places, and is definitely worth a visit when in Chile.  

The museum is conveniently located next to the Quinta Normal metro station, so it’s easy to find. You can enter right in the subway station.

Your visit starts with the right-wing coup of September 11, 1973.  News footage and hour by hour time markers track how members of the military junta took over the country.  Then-president Salvadore Allende committed suicide instead of letting himself be captured.  The coup was backed by the United States as part of its Cold War fight against communism.  

The second hall chronicles the start of repression, censorship, and human rights violations that followed for the next more than decade.  

General Augusto Pinochet quickly became the leader of the military junta and dictator-president, but the museum barely mentions him, choosing instead to focus on the victims and the struggle.  

During this period, newspapers and magazines were reduced to a short list of government approved publications.  Many Chileans tried to leave the country and seek asylum in embassies.  Travel was restricted, raids were common and hundreds of people “disappeared”.  

The museum provides booths with benches to sit and listen to the testimony of Chileans who lived through the horrors of this dictatorship.  

“They changed our life, they marked us forever, they put fear in our veins”. 

On the second floor is an area depicting the torture many experienced, but it is easily skipped if you are sensitive or have small children.  

There are collections of items that were made by prisoners during their incarceration. 

The long hallway brings hope to the visitor, as it shows how Chileans like Cardenal Raúl Silva Henríquez worked to shed light on the atrocities that were actively being committed by the Pinochet government and bring peace to Chile.  

The most impressive area of the museum is a glass room with plastic candles that overlooks a wall of photos of victims and serves as a poignant memorial.

After over 10 years of fear and repression, thanks in part to international outcry and active protests, calls for fair elections and an end to the dictatorship started.  Little by little Chileans won the lifting of restrictions on voting and the right to assemble.  

In 1988 Pinochet was ousted in a generally peaceful and fair election.  Seeing the election propaganda and ensuing celebrations leaves museum visitors hopeful at the end of an otherwise dark history.

Visiting the Museum

El Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos is free and open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00am to 4:30pm. Most museums in Santiago are closed on Mondays, so plan ahead).

The museum has done a good job of subtitling all of the videos in English and providing English translations of all of the main information boards, but not all of the items displayed have translations.  You will get more out of the museum with some Spanish language skills or some prior knowledge of the period.  

If you can’t visit in person, the website has a comprehensive free virtual tour with video explanations in Spanish.  This would be a great resource for Spanish teachers outside of Chile!

The museum also contains extensive archives for those researching, and an auditorium with films and events.  If you do enter through the metro station, make sure to walk outside and look at the outside of the building and the art pieces in the courtyard.

Overall, El Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos offers a well-presented history lesson that all travelers to Chile should see.

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