Objects as history. I never really took to this approach.
I, for one, have never much liked those museums displaying ancient flint combs and toothpicks. Object after soporific object, with little by way of accompanying explanation or context.
Some notable exceptions – British and Irish – of histories in ‘100 objects’, defy my scepticism. Yet I have never liked the fetishisation of the single object as an expression of history.
Having said that, I was quite excited by the prospect of Chile’s national history museum, in Santiago, where – so I was told – the final exhibit was the broken glasses of Salvador Allende: Chile’s famous deposed president of the 70s, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist head of state.
Allende was a plump old politician, head of the leftist Unidad Popular coalition which came to power in the country’s general election of 1970. His narrow victory heralded policies of income redistribution and nationalisation (not to mention warm relations with Castro’s Cuba) which pitted the nation’s right, its business interests and – critically – the US, against him.
I must confess to a certain attachment to Allende. In 1998 the Blair government, in a fleeting moment of radicalism, acceded to a Spanish judge’s request for the arrest of the man who deposed him – General Augusto Pinochet. Around the same time, in university, I learnt of the ‘first September 11’, in 1973, when Pinochet’s coup overthrew Chile’s government and resulted in Allende’s death – suicide, claimed the new military regime; death in combat with gun in hand, say his supporters. A romantic symbol of democratic socialism he remains.
Pinochet’s awful dictatorship is perhaps best symbolised by the ‘Caravan of Death’, a group of airborne soldiers who travelled from town to town eliminating political opponents in brutal helicopter raids. But his rule still divides opinion in the country, now returned to democracy, where there’s a stubborn rump of respect for the leader of the junta.
So, given this interesting history, I set aside my reservations about the ‘objects as history’ approach in anticipation of seeing Allende’s cracked specs in Chile’s national history museum.
Only to be disappointed.
Allende’s glasses were, so said the sign, ‘in the process of conservation’.
A sign of the limitation of ‘objects as history’? *Sigh*