Collections

THE BUILDING

The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory operates in what used to be ESMA’s Officers’ Club, a 5,390 sq. m building inaugurated in 1948 to be a leisure and rest area for high-ranking Navy officers. The construction has an independent pavilion, three floors in comb design, basements, and a large attic.

The ESMA was an emblematic Clandestine Center in South America. Due to its size, its location in an urban center, the co-existence of naval officers and the detained-disappeared, and its unique concentration features of imprisonment and extermination, its role transcended its own borders and transformed it into a heritage of outstanding universal value.

Since the years of the dictatorship, the Officers’ Club has been the object of many interventions and threats that meant to erase the remaining traces of its former role as a clandestine center. Most of these changes occurred in 1979 in order to hide the clandestine center from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which visited Argentina and ESMA due to the accusations made by survivors and families of the victims. Some of the biggest transformations were the demolition of the elevator and the stairs that led down to the basement, as well as the addition of galleries in the North and South courtyards. The Navy, which held the building until 2004, handed the place over to the Argentine State completely empty and totally deteriorated. Despite this, the marks and traces of its existence as a clandestine center of detention, torture and extermination (CCDTyE) are still there and they have been preserved.

THE TESTIMONIES

The survivors of the systematic plan for the disappearance of people are the voices that let the world know about what happened in Argentina since the beginning of the dictatorship. Their testimonies allowed thousands of the detained-disappeared to be identified, deciphered the names of the perpetrators, described the extermination of thousands of prisoners through the death flights and identified the pregnant women who were kept alive until they gave birth to their children.

Today, the content of the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory is based on the voices of the survivors: it is one of its main collections. The decision to screen the testimonies of the trials was one of the main curatorial choices for the exhibitions: the judicial truth produced an undeniable understanding across Argentine society and contributed to the overwhelming consensus on “Nunca Mas” (Never Again).

The document archive features more than 700 testimonies that were presented before the Argentine courts. The testimonies were originally given at the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in 1984, the Trial of the Juntas in 1985 and the trials for crimes against humanity that began after the judicial process was re-enabled in 2004.

The Museum’s testimonial archive is constantly updated as survivors continue to testify before the courts, producing new information.

The exhibition displays only one part of the collection of testimonies. The complete archive serves as a documentary source for the artistic productions created for the Museum’s activities and temporary exhibitions.

THE MARKINGS

The buildings are a document written in time and space. Like any other document, they can spark different interpretations, but buildings do not speak unless they are rigorously and systematically analyzed.

The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory has markings and inscriptions made by the detained-disappeared during the time it operated as a clandestine center.

There are different types of inscriptions on the walls, as well as on both the iron and wood structures in the building. There are markings that were made with unidentified sharp objects, and others with ink or graphite: names, phone numbers, initials, inscriptions of party affiliations, dates, drawings.

All of these markings have a huge historical, heritage and judicial value as evidence in the crimes against humanity. Today, these inscriptions are under rigorous archaeological investigation using different sources of information, such as blueprints, photographs, sketches and declassified documents with testimonies of survivors who were kidnapped and held in this place. This work is done by the Team of Archaeology and Conservation at the National Direction of Sites of Memory under the Secretary of Human Rights.