Protesters chanted “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” referring to the three decades that have passed since Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power and the regime’s continuing legacy. President Sebastián Piñera, in response, called for a national referendum to give Chileans the chance to vote to keep or replace the constitution. Originally slated for April 2020 but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the referendum takes place on Oct. 25.
The protests and the referendum suggest Chileans want a closer examination of their history and its persistence in modern-day society. Our research studies the impact of this type of historical examination, specifically the role of a museum that prompts visitor to reflect on the past. It suggests that grappling with a troubling past can be emotionally taxing — but can increase support for government institutions, compensation for victims and pardoning perpetrators, regardless of visitors’ ideology.
What is Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights?
After Pinochet stepped down, Chile invoked a number of transitional justice mechanisms — these are policies established by the government in response to the history of political violence. Chile’s government has implemented reparations and held two separate truth commissions, as well as trials for military officials. Another component of its approach to transitional justice was the construction of the government-funded Museum of Memory and Human Rights in 2010.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights examines the Chilean past, and aims to promote reflection on memory, solidarity and the importance of human rights. The museum’s exhibits span three floors, presenting materials that recount repression from the perspective of the Pinochet government’s victims.
In 2017, we carried out a field experiment with Chilean university student volunteers to explore how visiting the museum shapes views of the past, along with current policy preferences. We invited 502 students from the Universidad Católica de Chile to meet us at a central location on campus, where we informed them if they had been randomly assigned to visit the museum (our treatment group) — or be part of the control group, which would complete a survey in a computer lab akin to the survey the other group would complete after visiting the museum. Students in the treatment group completed a one-hour museum visit using an abridged version of the official audio guide.
We asked students about their impression of the museum. Pinochet established a right-wing military dictatorship that targeted those on the left. This ideological cleavage persists in the present, with those on the right more sympathetic of the dictatorship and its aims.
Before visiting the museum, we asked students to place themselves on a 1-10 scale, with lower numbers indicating an individual places themselves on the left and higher numbers on the right. We used these indications to split our sample into a left-leaning group and a right-leaning group.
Museum visitors’ ideology shapes their perceptions of the museum
We find that visitors on the right are more likely to agree to statements like “the museum has a left-wing bias and it inhibits societal advancement by focusing too much on the past.” Meanwhile, those on the left were more likely to express agreement with statements that the museum exceeded their expectations, impacted them emotionally and is an important place for Chileans to visit.
We also find that visitors are more likely to support institutions that opposed or have no association with the dictatorship — they noted their support for the church and for democracy in general. At the same time, they express less support for institutions associated with the period of repression, most notably the police and military governments.
Do left- and right-leaning visitors come away with a different impact? Visiting the museum decreased right-leaning students’ acceptance of a military government by 17 percent. They also indicated increased satisfaction with democracy and less satisfaction and trust in the police. These changes are particularly pronounced among right-leaning individuals, though visitors across the ideological spectrum reported effects in the same direction.
We also noted increased support for victim-oriented and transitional justice policies, like victim compensation as a policy to address the past. But visitors to the museum also significantly increased their support for pardoning perpetrators of political violence. These effects occur irrespective of political orientation.
How does a museum change visitors’ attitudes?
Here’s what we think is happening: The museum elicits emotional reactions that can be effective channels of persuasion. We find that museum visitors are more likely to feel scared, fearful, embarrassed, hostile, afraid, guilty, disgusted and tense than those in the control group. This makes sense, since the museum’s exhibits portray personal experiences during violence.
Negative emotions can prompt individuals to reduce threats and might urge them to adopt policy positions likely to prevent events like these from happening again. These emotional effects arise regardless of a visitor’s ideology. While it can be difficult emotionally to confront the stark reminders of the past, museum visitors nonetheless find the experience valuable and believe more Chileans should visit.
The museum visit culminates with the retelling of the 1989 referendum that led to Pinochet’s removal from office. This narrative depicts a society intent on charting its course in a new democracy. The calls for a new constitution that led to the 2020 referendum, however, suggest that Chile has yet to make a clear break from the legacy of the past.
This week’s referendum, if it passes, would see Chile write a new constitution and take a further step away from the Pinochet era. Our research suggests that despite ongoing ideological divisions — and the emotional toll of grappling with the past — reckoning with history could be a unifying, rather than dividing, force.
Laia Balcells (@laiabalcells) is provost’s distinguished associate professor of government at Georgetown University and the author of “Rivalry and Revenge: The Politics of Violence During Civil War” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Valeria Palanza (@vpalanza) is associate professor in political science at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the author of “Checking Presidential Power: Executive Decrees and the Legislative Process in New Democracies” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).