Panamanian Museums: History, Contexts and Contemporary Debates
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This study provides an in-depth analysis of the political and economic contexts in which dominant representations of nationhood and identity have formed in museums in Panama. A focus on museums stems from the long history these institutions have of accompanying political transformations in Panama. A project for a National Museum was started as early as 1906, just three years after the official birth of the Republic of Panama, and with each political change in the country, the museum sector has been in one way or another restructured. During the first years of the military dictatorship (1968-81), a host of new museums were created, and after the return to democracy in 1989, government investments in museums increased. Other private and community investments in museums in the last few years (the Museum of the Inter-Oceanic Canal inaugurated in 1997, the interpretive museum at the Panamá Viejo Visitor Centre inaugurated in 2004, the Museum of the Kuna Nation opened in 2005, and the relocation of the MARTA in 2006) also show that museums in Panama have once again attracted the attention of a number of stakeholders as sites for attempts at rearticulating nationhood and identity in Panama. A number of contemporary debates, in particular those related to Panama’s ethnic diversity and its recent history of conflict, have nonetheless been silenced or muted in the displays of these museums. The study is divided in three parts, one contextual, one analytical and one practice-based. Part I: Contexts presents a background of the debates surrounding the history of Panama that will be later on contrasted to current museum representations. Part II: Cases presents analyses of five museums: the Museum of Nationality, the Anthropological Museum Reina Torres de Araúz, the Museum of the Inter-Oceanic Canal, the Panamá Viejo Visitor Centre, the West Indian Museum of Panama and the Museum of the Kuna Nation. The cases are analyzed in relation to their external and internal contexts. External contexts include political and economic factors affecting the museums (apparent in policies, sources of funding, and employment practices). Internal contexts included disciplinary changes affecting the conceptualization of museums and their mission, as well as other normative changes affecting methods of collection and museum deontology. These external and internal contexts are national, regional and international, and have changed over time. Part III: Models is dedicated to examples where silences or gaps in the representation of nationhood and identity in Panama have been addressed. Examples include urban art exhibitions in Panama City and temporary exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and two New Media models (a computer game and an online video and audio centre) developed as part of this thesis.