's premier sight is also its main sight from a dark tourism perspective: the ex-presidio (former prison) which now houses the "museo maritimo" (maritime museum). That name, however, only covers a small part of the exhibitions, so it is a bit misleading. Most of the museum is actually about the prison itself, penitentiary facilities in general, and about all manner of other aspects ranging from early colonialism in Argentina
's Tierra del Fuego and Antarctic
explorers to the "Conflicto Islas Malvinas" (Falklands War
More background info: Ushuaia
owes much of its very first lease of life to the fact that it was chosen as a remote penal colony in the late 19th century, and in 1902 the construction of the present building was begun. It was the result of a merger of an earlier military prison and a prison for repeat offenders.
By 1920, its five cell-block wings, or "pavilions", which branch out from a central hall (a classic type of prison design – cf. Eastern State Penitentiary
), were finished. These had a total of 386 cells, all intended for single occupancy. But at peak times the prison population was closer to 600.
Most inmates were criminals sentenced to long terms or life for murder or other such serious crimes, but there were also political prisoners.
The prisoners had to do all manner of work – including not least the construction of the prison itself and its surrounding workshop buildings. They also built a narrow-gauge train line – famously the southernmost one in the world, to facilitate access to work sites (logging, mainly) in the woods around the settlement. This line still exists today and has become an extra tourist attraction – see under Ushuaia
The prison was closed in 1947 and the premises were handed over to the naval base. The Argentine Navy still occupies much of the site today, except for the old prison, which is now the principal tourist attraction of the city in the form of a museum (the main draw otherwise being Ushuaia's role as a departure point for Antarctica
What there is to see: A lot!!! The amount that this museum has to offer is easily underestimated. The name "museo maritimo" is misleading, actually. It is not just a maritime museum, in fact that's only a small part of it. There is so much more to it and spread out over so many rooms that this museum takes some serious time, ideally split over two days to enable you to take it all in properly at leisure.
To begin with there is the building itself: an impressive early 20th century edifice of a classic prison layout with a central hall from which five two-storey wings/cell blocks radiate (cf. Eastern State Penitentiary
Once inside you can take in the first part of the maritime section or leave that for later, like I did, and head straight to the first former cell block and into the prison museum part, which naturally is more interesting for the dark tourist.
What you see first is a long corridor and a gallery above with a dummy guard in a blue uniform "overseeing" everything. Two bent and dented metal ovens stand in the middle of the corridor. The cells on each side contain the actual exhibition rooms and more photos and panels line the main corridor wall too.
Several former cells are "occupied" by yet more dummies, this time in typical Argentine prison garb, i.e. in black-and-yellow striped suits and a cap following the same colour pattern (making them look uncannily like wasps!). Some stand listlessly by their prison bunk beds, others sit on the mattress's edge and stare dejectedly at the wall, yet others seem to enjoy the privilege of having books to read in their cells, whose walls are even cheerfully painted.
But it's not all just a dummies-in-mock-cells affair. There's plenty of information too. Apart from presenting the history of the prison in incredible detail – way too much to even begin retelling it here – the exhibition also highlights certain individual prisoners' stories. For instance there was Simon Radowitzky, a Russian anarchist bomber who killed the police chief of Buenos Aires
in 1909, or "El Orejudo" Godino, a serial killer of diminutive stature but oversized ears (hence the nickname).
Other themes in this section include prison guards and administration, prisoners' work and working conditions (including in the woods around Ushuaia
, for which the world's southernmost train line was built by the prisoners), hygiene and medical care, hierarchies amongst prisoners, and so on and so forth.
At the end of the corridor you come to the big central hall. It contains a cafe/bar, which at the time of my visit was closed (maybe it only opens for special events). From here the other wings branch off, three of which contain further exhibitions, and so you have to decide what to do next. I proceeded to the "historic pavilion".
This is the oldest cell block of the whole compound, preserved more or less in its original state, and so it does not contain any museum commodification
. It is therefore by far the most "atmospheric" part of the ex-prison! You can only walk the length of the block on the downstairs level because the upstairs is too dilapidated – visibly so: you can see the rotting floorboards from below. At one end of the corridor you can go upstairs, but only as far as the top of the stairs and take a look along the nicely grim upstairs part of the wing. At the end of the downstairs corridor you come to some old washrooms.
Once back in the central hall you could go to the art galleries or the gift shop or head to the upper level of wings 2 and 4 that contain yet more museum exhibitions. I decided on the latter and to leave the former for later.
On the level above the main prison exhibition there are two separate sections. One is about other prisons around the world that have become museums too. This is probably one the most intriguing sections from a dark tourism perspective. I found out about more such sites that I hadn't previously been aware of, so it was quite educational for me personally – and I will have to add a few new entries to this site on the basis of those hints! Other prison sites covered in this exhibition are much better known (and already covered on this website too) such as Robben Island
) or Kilmainham Gaol
Opposite the prison-museums-of-the-world section is an exhibition about Antarctica
, early explorers such as Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and Nordenskjöld but also about Argentina
's contemporary activities on the "Big White".
On the second floor above the art gallery is a section about old-time Ushuaia
and the early colonization of Tierra del Fuego in general – including bits about the Yamana natives of the region, who were as good as wiped out by the European settlers.
Opposite that section is the other half of the maritime museum (the first one, remember, is in the entrance building – we'll come back to that in a bit). Here you can find the usual ship models, including cross sections made to endearingly detailed precision, and other maritime bits and bobs.
One especially intriguing section is about the Falkland Islands
– or Islas Malvinas, as they are called here, of course. There are photos of some of the main sights of the islands' capital Stanley
– only that it isn't called that here either, but is referred to by the name the Argentinians had in mind for the place had they been able to keep the islands, namely "Puerto Argentino". But as we all know, Argentina lost the Falklands War
, which is still bitterly remembered in Argentina
in particular. The museum outlines some of the particulars of the war – including the sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano
. There's a model of the cruiser too – as well as images from the sinking and objects from it. Charts outline the initial landing operations by Argentina ("Operation Rosario") and the initial operations on South Georgia
are covered too. But what is (typically) missing is a proper substantiation of the Argentinian claim on the islands (cf. the Falklands sovereignty dispute
The other half of the maritime museum part is found in the same building that the main entrance is in. This section covers more contemporary aspects of the maritime theme (current Antarctic research vessels, for instance) but also more historic stuff, including a number of lovingly made models of shipwrecks! Upstairs are a couple more small exhibitions, one about (Sub-)Antarctic wildlife – with lots of stuffed penguins – and another about oil extraction efforts in the area.
There's a small gift shop adjacent to these last sections, but the main one is to be found downstairs in pavilion 4. The shops are well worth a good look since they stock a huge range of items, ranging from clothing (including mock prisoner's striped jumpers) to coffee-table books on Antarctica
and Tierra del Fuego. Behind the main shop is a space for temporary exhibitions and there are rooms for other special events too.
Finally there is the art section. This too proved to be much better than I would normally anticipate in such a setting. Some of the artwork on display here was really quite cool!
The museum has a few outdoor exhibits as well. The largest of these is a replica of the "faro del fin del mundo" (= 'lighthouse "at the end of the world') on Isla de los Estados, the island off the eastern tip of the Tierra del Fuego "mainland". The inside of the lighthouse can only be seen on guided tours.
Also outside are a boat, a steam engine and a bit of train on tracks to represent that southernmost train line built by the prisoners (the real train line can also be visited – see Ushuaia
All in all it is certainly an incredibly rich museum by any account. Some of the presentation could do with a bit of careful modernization, but then again, I am quite fond of old-fashioned museums, so maybe it's a good thing it's a bit "stuffy".
All texts are bilingual, Spanish and English, and for the most part the English translations are just about good enough to see you through if you don't speak Spanish, though they are far from perfect (not necessarily always too badly riddled with mistakes, but just very, very clumsy overall and thus not easy to read).
While this Ushuaia
museum may not be so important as to make it a destination worth travelling to specifically in its own right, it nevertheless is surely a must-do when in the area. And then give it the time it deserves too.
just beyond the eastern end of central Ushuaia
, at the end of Gobernador Paz street and across Yaganes street, within the huge compound of the Ushuaia naval base.
Access and costs: easy to get to, generous with opening times; not overpriced for what you get.
the museum is very easy to locate: just walk one of the main streets of Ushuaia
city centre (the waterfront Av. Maipu or the shopping street Av. San Martin) until you come to its eastern end on Yaganes. Turn left into Yaganes, then take the first right and after a few yards you'll be in front of the wing with the museum entrance. Outside a propped up boat, some sculptures and a white anchor support the museum sign to mark the location. So it should be pretty impossible to miss. Even easier still is doing the museum at the end of one of those blue bus city tours (see Ushuaia
), which at the end either drop you off right outside the museum or in the city centre.
Opening times: daily (except on public holidays) from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (in winter only open from 10 a.m.).
Admission: 110 Argentine Pesos (ca. 10 EUR – as of early 2014). Tickets are valid for two days, but you have to present an ID document (passport or driving licence or so), then they will stamp your ticket accordingly. If you consider this extra validity, as well as the very generous opening times, then the price is not that bad, really. If you want to, you can get an incredibly good "mileage" out of it.
Guided tours are also offered, in Spanish on a regular basis, in English on request. I didn't go on one as I thought it unnecessary (if you give them good time, the museum exhibitions are pretty self-explanatory), but if you're pressed for time, then it may be a good way of getting a decent overview at least.
Time required: longer than you would think. Much longer. A whole day may not be enough to see everything. It is often recommended that you spread a visit out over two days – as you do get free admission on a consecutive second day. It is possible to do it in one day, but you'd either have prepare yourself for a long and draining museum day or skip and skim a lot. I managed in one day, but it was a bit of a struggle.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Ushuaia
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
some parts of the museum are already rather light than dark, such as the art exhibition parts or much of the maritime sections. For more non-dark sights outside the museum see under Ushuaia