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May 28, 2020

ICOM VoicesCommunity Engagement during COVID-19 at the House of Memory Museum, Medellín

Isabel Dapena | Armando Perla

Museo Casa de la Memoria | City of Medellín

Keywords: COVID-19; crisis response; community work; field work; social role

The global crisis caused by the arrival of COVID-19 has not only forced us to rethink our daily lives and the way we work, but also to question the systems that have shaped our societies until today. The pandemic has exposed a shocking deficiency in all sectors of our society: medical, political, financial, industrial and cultural. Those who were already vulnerable now must fight to simply stay alive. Human rights defenders working with vulnerable communities have pointed out how groups such as the elderly, asylum seekers, refugees, members of the LGBTQAI+ community, undocumented workers, the homeless and those living in poverty have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Faced with such a scenario, some museums who work closely with their communities have adapted their practices so that they can continue to fulfill their missions. For instance, the House of Memory Museum in Medellín, Colombia, together with the Culture Secretariat of Medellín, were mandated by the mayor’s office of Medellín to lead the COVID-19 strategy in the Commune 8: Villa Hermosa, a neighborhood where different ethnic groups, victims of the Colombian conflict, informal workers, Venezuelan migrants, and displaced communities converge.

Collaborative social actions to help communities 

The decision by the mayor’s office to include the House of Memory Museum in its strategy against COVID-19 was influenced by the years of community work carried out by the museum in order to build a relationship of trust with the various communities within its surroundings. In light of this commitment, the municipal government saw an opportunity to create a partnership to promptly assist those disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This unique scheme of cooperation between the municipal government and the museum has focused on four areas:

  • Communication: following the security measures and the guidelines established by the mayor’s office, members of the museum’s team are on the ground, listening to and evaluating the needs of community members and transferring this information back to the administration. This has established a channel of communication between the community and the municipal government.
  • Shelter: the museum’s team works to refer homeless people to temporary shelters built by the city so that they can improve their conditions for self-isolation and social distancing.
  • Health: the museum’s team is being trained by health professionals from Medellín’s hospitals on issues of prevention, reduction and treatment of the COVID-19 infection. In this way the museum can transfer this knowledge to people in the community who do not have access to it.
  • Food: the museum’s team is also distributing food to those unable to work due to quarantine.
Aura Aleida Jaramillo, deputy director of the House of Memory Museum collecting food packages to be stored in the museum before distribution in the community. © Museo Casa de la Memoria, Medellín
Cathalina Sánchez, director of the House of Memory Museum explaining safety protocols to a team of volunteers. © Museo Casa de la Memoria, Medellín

The collaborative work with community leaders in Commune 8 has been essential for the museum to carry out the mandate assigned by the mayor’s office. For instance, the pre-existing relationship of trust between the museum and community leaders has facilitated the identification of families most in need so that the team can assist them promptly.

Door-to-door interviewing with the purpose of creating a database to identify the most vulnerable families so they can be prioritized. © Museo Casa de la Memoria, Medellín

Preserving long-term community projects

At the same time, the museum continues to work remotely with the community on an agenda related to memory and peacebuilding, which includes:

  • The ‘Gathering of Memory Weavers’ project, in which women individually weave their memories during quarantine so that they can be united to form a collective art piece at the end of lockdown.
  • Re-activation and promotion of 10 virtual exhibitions on issues related to the Colombian conflict, memory, peace and reconciliation
  • Offering support for the development of the Casa Amiga Memory Museum project, a community museum of collective memories started by community organizations and women leaders in Commune 13.
  • Support in the development and management of strategic allies for the project: ‘Conquering borders’, a community initiative aiming to create a memory Boulevard through participatory approaches in Calle Nueva in the Commune 13.

The work being carried out in the Commune 8 neighborhood has also created an opportunity for the museum to learn about people’s experiences during quarantine. As a memory museum, the House of Memory Museum is responsible for preserving the memories and stories of those who have been most affected by the pandemic in an ethical and responsible manner.

The House of Memory Museum serves as a reference in a museum sector that is driven more by an obligation to assist and contribute to the betterment of every member of society and less by the desire to develop ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions aimed at pleasing a smaller, elite audience.

The current global health crisis is pushing us, as museum professionals, to radically rethink our sector from a perspective that favours the social role of museums over their previous positioning as elite institutions; and to re-imagine museums both as community spaces existing within and beyond their walls and as key agents that can assist society in times of crisis.  The House of Memory Museum in Medellín is showing the way.

Isabel Dapena – Head Curator, Museo Casa de la Memoria

Armando Perla – International Advisor on Museums, Human Rights and Social Inclusion, City of Medellín and Board member, IC-Ethics

References and resources:

More information about the House of Memory Museum




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