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4 Fascinating Caribbean & Latin America Museums

4 Fascinating Caribbean & Latin America Museums

Posted by Shanelle Weir on January 21, 2015

The natural environments found across the Caribbean and Latin American are true-life ad campaigns for sunny skies, brilliant blue waters, soft sandy beaches and lush green mountainsides. The magnificent natural beauty found in these regions has inspired generations of travelers, who understandably seek every opportunity to enjoy these earthly wonders.

In fact for some, the notion of strolling about a museum hall during a warm-weather vacation borders on lunacy. Yet experienced travelers understand that the spectacular natural attractions found the Caribbean and Latin America sometimes obscure the compelling histories and cultures that lie behind the swaying palms. Indeed the very best Caribbean and Latin American museums are alive with history and feature compelling items, artifacts and images instrumental to the development of these fabled locales.

Today’s Caribbean and Latin American museums preserve the objects, artifacts and cultures of the native people who created the earliest Western Hemisphere civilizations. The museums also detail the profound and long-lasting impact wrought by a succession of European colonial powers beginning in the 15thcentury. Finally, the museums examine the difficult, and at times eventful, emergence of contemporary societies across these regions in the 20th century.

Travelers who find inspiration in the historical lessons uncovered through the experiences of earlier generations will find much to appreciate at top museums in the Caribbean and Latin America. Here is a list of five of the very best:

Ogier-Fombrun Museum, Cotes des Acardins, Haiti

Located on the property of the Moulin Sur Mer resort along Haiti’s Cotes des Acardins beach district, the Musee Ogier-Fombrun offers a full picture of daily life at an 18th century sugar plantation. The Musee also features an impressive collection of uniforms, weapons and historic documents tied to Haiti’s successful slave revolt and establishment as a republic in 1804.

The one-time sugar plantation’s long-idle historic structures and artifacts were uncovered more than 35 years ago by Gerard Fombrun, the property’s owner, who decided to create a museum on the resort’s grounds.  

Buried for generations under earth and lush foliage following two centuries of inactivity, the museum’s displays include the authentic stone aqueduct used to deliver water to a gigantic wooden wheel, 20 feet in diameter, used in colonial times to extract the juice from the cane.

Other Ogier-Fombrun Museum displays chronicle Haiti’s pre-Colombian era, when native people cared out the first local civilizations, to the colonial era of the 1790s, when Haiti was the Caribbean’s largest sugar producer and home to millions of transplanted West African slaves who would soon rise up in revolt to overthrow their captors.

In fact the museum features haunting displays of the Haitians’ fight for freedom, including swords, helmets and uniforms used by Haiti’s military leaders. There is also a sobering display of the array of chains and torture instruments used to subdue and punish slaves.

La Savane des Esclaves, Trois Illets, Martinique

La Savane des Esclaves is a two hectare open-air museum located in the resort town of Trois Ilets on the island of Martinique. Operated by proprietor Gilbert Larose, the museum replicates a post-slavery native village and farm with traditional palisades wood houses featuring beaten earth floors and cane-leaf roofs.

The lush and hilly grounds are filled with native trees and plants, and the grounds also feature a garden cultivated in a traditional manner without use of chemicals or pesticides. The garden features medicinal plants used for hundreds of years by Caribbean natives to treat and cure a wide range of illnesses and injuries. Other exhibits document traditional construction techniques and processes that include the manufacture of cacao sticks and sugarcane juice.

PHOTO:  Traditional dwelling at La Savane de Esclaves. 

La Savane also offers a frank and brutally accurate documentation of slavery in Martinique. Through paintings, sculptures and historical drawings and photographs, the incredible cruelty and violence of the slave-based agricultural economy is depicted, from Africans’ horrific capture and transport across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, the callous sale of slave families on the auction blocks and the slaves’ existence, defined by bondage, back-breaking labor and the ever-present threat and reality of punishment, torture and rape.

The exhibits also document the often-untold story of slave resistance and include chilling scenes of frenzied slave insurrections and revolts. Yet while it exists as a tableau of incredible suffering and violence, the La Savane is a surprisingly uplifting place that also chronicles the Caribbean slave population’s transition to free people following slavery’s end in Martinique.

La Memoria Vive Museum, Suchitoto, El Salvador

La Memoria Vive museum, translated as the “Museum of the Living Memory,” is located in the colonial town of Suchitoto, El Salvador, in the town’s Centro de Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace). Opened in 2010, the museum’s displays document the history of the region, which has been inhabited since pre-Columbian times.

For many the museum’s highlight are its exhibits, displays, art and artifacts from the country’s searing civil war, a notoriously violent conflict that saw much of the populace, including men, women and children, take up arms in defense of their lives and beliefs.

PHOTO: La Memoria Vive Museum includes a variety of images from El Salvador’s civil war between 1979 and 1992. 

The displays include weapons used in the conflict and archival photographs, letters and other materials documenting the bloody fight and its impact on everyday people. Museum officials today offer “conflict resolution” classes at the facility; the classes are designed to provide citizens with conflict-resolution strategies to be applied domestically and in the context of the larger society.

La Chascona, Santiago, Chile

“La Chascona” is the one-time home of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel-Prize winning poet and political figure whose life mirrors the development of the modern Chilean state. Located in Bellevista, a bohemian district of Santiago, Chile, the home is a wonderfully imaginative museum featuring priceless paintings, drawings, art and sculpture created and collected by Neruda over more than 60 years. 

Dispersed among the art is an array of distinctive objects, from quaint mechanical devices to impressive architectural elements that incorporate the home’s location at the foot of Santiago’s San Cristobal Hill. One small room features Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize medal for literature alongside other official documents.

Neruda built the house, one of three he owned in Chile, in 1953 and named it for Matilde Urrutia, his beloved mistress, whose flaming red hair for Neruda evoked “chascona,” a Chilean Spanish term for a flowing mane of red locks. La Chascona’s signature painting displays a two-faced Matilde, representing both the figure known to the public and the lover known to Neruda. A third image lies within the painting, representing the pair’s clandestine relationship.

La Chascona is now run by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, which manages his estate. La Chascona is available for visits most days and travelers can arrange tours of the home through Santiago Adventures, which also offers excursions to attractions around San Cristobal Hill and the Bellevista district. 

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