Museo Penitenciario Argentino
A small prison museum in the San Telmo quarter of Buenos Aires
. It's about the historical development of the penitentiary system in Argentina
and Latin America in general, in which the old museum building partly played a role.
More background info: The building that the museum is housed in has had a long and chequered history. It did not start out as a prison, but was built in the first half of the 18th century as a religious mission, almshouse and school. Informally, it is still widely referred to as "La Residencia".
In later years it served, inter alia, as a mental asylum, a home for "fallen women", a powder magazine and also as a prison proper, in particular a women's prison.
After the last women prisoners were transferred to more contemporary facilities in the 1970s, the building was finally turned into a museum. It was inaugurated in December 1980. It's also home to the Academia Superior de Estudios Penitenciarios (Academy of penitentiary studies).
The full name of the institution is Museo Penitenciario Argentino "Antonio Ballve" – i.e. it is named after the important prison reformer who introduced major changes to the treatment of prisoners in the early 20th century to bring it into line with equivalent modernization trends in Europe.
What there is to see: not all that much. The museum consists of a row of rooms that branch off a single half-open corridor that runs along the eastern side of a colonnaded courtyard next to a largish church.
The rooms all have different themes and include the following:
The first room looks like a library or study, as it has a huge elaborately carved desk surrounded by book cabinets. In these, however, you can also see little white figurines demonstrating various methods of corporal punishment, torture or even executions!
One room looks a bit like a jumble sale, with various items such as an old telephone switchboard, a hairdresser's chair, a plough and other such random things on display. Along one wall there is a huge pharmacy cabinet with hundreds of bottles and pots containing unidentifiable potions, powders and ointments.
Another room, its entrance "guarded" by a grim, blue-uniformed dummy prison guard, gives an overview of prison history in Argentina. On display is a typical yellow-and-black prison inmate's dress (cf. the ex-presidio in Ushuaia
!), various shackles and a large model of the former National Penitentiary in Palermo (1877-1961). The use of Ushuaia
in Tierra del Fuego as a prison colony is covered too.
In yet another room various items made by prisoners are displayed, including weapons such as knives and improvised guns, fashioned from all manner of source objects. Comparatively more harmless personal belongings are also displayed in yet more cabinets.
One room is set aside for chronicling the prison reforms in Argentina esp. in the early 20th century, and a number of models show modern, contemporary correctional facilities.
At the end of the corridor are a couple of reconstructed cells, one complete with a dummy prisoner in a yellow-and-black striped uniform, another with graffiti on the wall calling for "justicia" ...
Some of the signs and information panels in the museum are in both Spanish and English, but not all of them, and the quality of the English translations could do with a bit of brushing up, to be frank. But many exhibits speak sufficiently for themselves, so it's not a major shortcoming all things considered. At the entrance you can also pick up a free leaflet about the museum, which is also available in English.
The museum is hardly a key dark tourism attraction, but it can serve as a light addition to an extended itinerary in Buenos Aires
(lighter when compared to much "heavier" and darker places such as ESMA
and other dirty-war-related sites). It can also be a simple addition to a stroll around San Telmo – apparently many tourists pop in simply because admission is free. Some of the visitors I saw when I was there simply walked the length of the main corridor once and then headed straight back out. So it's clearly not for everybody ...
I must say, though, that despite (or because of?) its somewhat old-fashioned character and deficiency in the presentation of information, I found the place quite endearing ...
right in the middle of the popular San Telmo district of Buenos Aires
378 Humberto Primero, just a few steps east from Plaza Dorrego, about a mile (1.5 km) south of Plaza de Mayo.
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, free
the museum is within walking distance from the core of the city centre of Buenos Aires
, and can easily be slotted in during a stroll around the popular district of San Telmo. The northern half of the quarter between Av. Independencia and San Juan attracts locals and tourists alike with its markets, antique shops, bars and restaurants, as well as Sunday street music and open-air tango. It thus makes for a perfect break when you reach the area around Plaza Dorrego. From the corner of Defensa and the Plaza it is only a few steps east. A big black-and-white sign hovering over the street stalls from the old walls of the building points the way to the entrance.
Opening times: Thursday to Sunday 2 to 6 p.m.
Guided tours can also be arranged (in appointment in advance), but are hardly necessary.
Time required: not especially long, about half an hour will do for most visitors.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The closest spot of dark significance is the site of the former detention centre of Club Atletico just round the corner and one block south. Plaza de Mayo, a mile to the north, is also within easy walking distance as are further dirty-war-associated places to the west of San Telmo's heart – see under Buenos Aires
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
In general see under Buenos Aires
As already mentioned, the area that the museum is located in is very popular with tourists, especially on Sundays, when the quaint streets, lined with often brightly painted houses, become alive with flea markets, live music and even open-air tango shows and lessons. The main street to find all this is Defensa and the focal point is Plaza Dorrego, just a few yards west of the museum.
A particular delight is also the Mercado San Telmo, a market hall with a wonderfully ornate wrought iron and glass roof, sheltering the food and bric-a-brac stalls under it.
Apart from the hustle and bustle of the market and street stalls, the quieter side streets of San Telmo are also worth a look. One particularly lovely find is the pleasant café-restaurant "Naturaleza Sabia" (at Balcarce 958) – offering a welcome vegetarian alternative to the omnipresent carnivorousness that otherwise so dominates Argentina
- Museo Penitenciario 01 - sign
- Museo Penitenciario 02 - courtyard
- Museo Penitenciario 03 - bell and lamp
- Museo Penitenciario 04 - dummy guard
- Museo Penitenciario 05 - touching displays, or not
- Museo Penitenciario 06 - brutal death sentences
- Museo Penitenciario 07 - different prison designs
- Museo Penitenciario 08 - switchboard
- Museo Penitenciario 09 - surgery
- Museo Penitenciario 10 - cell with dummy inmate
- Museo Penitenciario 11 - steps
- Museo Penitenciario 12 - grim cell
- Museo Penitenciario 13 - justicia
- Museo Penitenciario 14 - old prison door