The National Museum of Memory: A Moral Duty

This is a permanent process of creating memory. These are the pieces of brick that we brought for the construction of this, our memory This painful clay will be transformed, and we will be strengthened in the unity of our dreams”(Reference to Salón del Nunca Más, Granada, Antioquia)

A violent act against one person or a collective signifies the moral imposition of the victimizer over the victim. The victimizers wrests the victim of his humanity and imposes a moral order that justifies his violent action. The impact on a victim is charged, in addition to the evident physical violence, with symbolic meanings: “One reason we so deeply resent moral injuries done to us is not simply that they hurt us in some tangible or sensible way; it is because such injuries are also messages- symbolic communications.” (Murphy; 1990: 25) Thus the reestablishment of humanity, the reconstruction of morale that was lost, and the process of healing of those who suffered the pain of violent action, will only be a reality once their humanity, which the violence has denied, is recognized.

In midst of a process of transitioning from a conflict situation to one of peace, reparation for victims must contemplate, in addition to the material dimension, a symbolic aspect. This is the aspect that prioritizes the recognition of and respect for the victim, and there are various institutional alternatives to reconstruct this historical memory. However, in addition to an institutional task and duty to reconstruct the events of the violence, there is a tacit commitment with the victims to promote exercises of construction of stories and different commemorative representations that stem from the communities affected by the violence.

As a society, we have a moral duty to remember violent acts. In Gómez Iza’s words: “the proclamation of this duty to remember makes us ask ourselves if this is not also emerging as a right of victims, society, and in some cases, all of humanity” (Gómez, s.f., p. 39).

Above all, it is necessary to take into account the functions of historical memory with respect to the very process of transitional justice: memory becomes a means to exalt and make known the different voices of the victims, in addition to vindicating the stories of those that have suffered the violence. This is why an alternative story of past abuses must be built, giving priority to victim testimony.

There are many different places in the world whose purpose is to remember painful memories of the past, such as the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Chile) and the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (Argentina). The most recent case, closest to Colombia is the Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social, inaugurated in Lima, Peru, in December 2015. This, Ponciano del Pino, states, is a “living space for the recollection, reflection, and analysis that contributes to the formation of a citizenry that respects human rights and questions the persistence of exclusion, discrimination, and intolerance in our society” (del Pino; 2014).

In 2011, with the passage of the Victim’s Law (Law 1448 / 2011), whose object is to comprehensively repair the victims of the internal armed conflict in Colombia, measures regarding memory were included, such as the creation of a National Museum of Historical Memory (CNMH), the entity responsible for designing and building this space, has the power to make the Museum a representative space for victims of the conflict, and a reflective space for society.

The CNMH defines places for memory as “the spatial dimension of memory and the physical placement of the act of remembering.” With respect to the National Museum of Historical Memory, the Center states that, in addition to the physical construction, this space requires a social construction, which implies processes of dialogue, reflection, and direct participation of the victims for the design and creation of this space. In this sense, the success of the space for memory depends on its capacity to represent different voices of the armed conflict.

It is necessary to ask how initiatives of memory will include victims in the script and museum concept. Understanding that, “in spite of adverse conditions of a prolonged war, such as the Colombian one, diverse communities, groups and individuals have taken up the task of undertaking exercises to remember violent acts. These are expressed in diverse ways: cultural productions and documentaries, artistic practices, sociocultural and oral practices, in the construction of places of memory, in different performative actions, and in particular through commemorative rituals.” (CNMH; 2015; 387).** In Colombia many actors are making memory; however, for the construction of its contents, the Museum must give priority to the reparatory approach and the effective participation of victims.

Below, I enumerate some of the many examples of places of memory, community museums, and monuments that have been built to commemorate victims of armed conflict and to remember violent acts:

Centro de Memoria del Conflicto  (Valledupar, Cesar) ( Photo  from the Center of Memory of the Conflict for the Register of Initiatives of Historical Memory, CNMH)

Centro de Memoria del Conflicto (Valledupar, Cesar) (Photo from the Center of Memory of the Conflict for the Register of Initiatives of Historical Memory, CNMH)

Park and Monument of Trujillo  (Trujillo, Valle del Cauca) (Photo from  Eje21 )

Park and Monument of Trujillo (Trujillo, Valle del Cauca) (Photo from Eje21)

Salón del Nunca Más  (Granada, Antioquia) ( Photo  from CNMH for the Salón del Nunca Más)

Salón del Nunca Más (Granada, Antioquia) (Photo from CNMH for the Salón del Nunca Más)

Efforts of memory building are important to remedy the morale of a community affected by violence. This is why institutions should support the strengthening of local memory initiatives of memory, and society should adopt them. Additionally, it is important to effectively link local authorities and officials in order to articulate the places of memory to institutional, rather than transitional, mechanisms, to guarantee their permanence and relevance over time.


* Ana María is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

**The CNMH has worked to find initiatives and exercises of historical memory throughout the Colombian territory. To see the registry, click here.