The Museum of External Debt is located in a brightly lit, glass-walled room off a busy hallway in the UBA Faculty of Economics. The physical space seems fitting for the museum, as it seeks shine light on a complex and often unexplained subject. Though it would be hard to confirm, the staff think that it may be the only museum of its kind in the world.
With the imminent return of the IMF to Argentina and the country’s rapidly-growing debt load, the museum’s role in shaping and presenting a narrative of the country’s history with external debt takes on a new importance. “We believe that [external debt] is transversal to our daily lives,” says sub-director Félix Penna.
The museum was born out of discussions among UBA economics faculty, students, and graduates in late 2001, when the country’s last crisis was reaching its boiling point. “The external debt was an issue that was not talked about much in the press and was very important,” said Mateo Gadano, the current coordinator of the museum. Planning began in earnest in 2003 for an exhibit about the history of Argentina’s external debt.
In April 2005, just months before Néstor Kirchner announced a lump-sum repayment to the IMF and the cessation of Argentina’s ties to the Fund, the first iteration of the museum opened in the Ernesto Sábato Cultural Center under the title “External Debt Never Again.” By 2011, the exhibition had come under the control of the UBA Secretary of Student Wellbeing and was moved to its current location in the Faculty of Economics.
Since the museum’s founding, the team has added a mobile museum and published a series of comics about Argentina’s debt. A customized semi-trailer transports and displays the museum’s materials to various provinces throughout the country. Four colorful comic books tell the story of Argentina’s debt with caricatures of cigar-chomping bankers, head-hanging debtors, and a few aliens.
Visitors are free to browse the museum’s panels on their own, but many come in for a guided visit. In the one-room museum, this turns out to be more like an informal lecture given by one of the museum’s trained guides—mostly undergraduate students in related fields. The primary audience for the visits is secondary schools, but the museum has also received primary schools, university groups, and families.
Jessica Colameo, a professor at CENS (Center for Secondary Level Education, an adult-ed program), has been bringing her classes to the museum for five years. She believes that it helps her students connect what they learn in class to the real world. The museum “shows the reality more than the theory,” she said.
When Colameo’s class visited the museum in May they were greeted by Matías, a law student at UBA who has guided museum visitors for a year. The students seemed mildly interested as Matías began the presentation with the early 19th century origins of Argentina’s external debt. When he began to talk about the 2001 default, however, heads started to perk up. The older students had personal memories of the crisis. One woman remembered working in a COTO supermarket at the time and having trouble making change for customers.
The museum’s panels and the comic books offer a particular interpretation of history. Federico Savaria, the first director, was impressed by the work of Norberto Galasso, a well-known Marxist historian, and incorporated Galasso’s work heavily into the museum. In De la Banca Baring al FMI (“From the Baring Bank to the IMF”), Galasso identifies neoliberal policies pushed by the US as a major cause of Argentina’s economic woes.
Galasso is quoted several times throughout the museum’s displays and the comic books provide a creative illustration of his perspective. In the books, a menacing Uncle Sam is alternately depicted as predatorily feeding on foreign debtors, lunging across the Atlantic to stomp on South American nations, or simply smoking a cigar with a miserly smirk.
Although the ideological undercurrent pervades the museum’s exhibits, Gadano and Penna did not seem as concerned with promoting a certain narrative of the past. “Our idea with this museum is to avoid having this history repeat itself,” said Gadano.
The Museo de la Deuda Externa is located within the Facultad de Ciencias Económicas Edificio Anexo at José E. Uriburu 781, first floor. The museum is open Monday-Friday from 9am – 9pm. Tours can be arranged by phone, 11 4370-6105 (int. 6381).