For the upcoming occasion of International Human Rights Day on December 10th, I sat down with Lucas Massuco, 2020 Fellow at the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability (AHDA) Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR, Columbia University); Institutional Coordinator at the Memory Museum (Municipality of Rosario, Argentina), and Political Scientist and International Relations Professor at the Rosario National University and asked him a few questions about his work with human rights and archives.
Welcome, Lucas. It is a pleasure to talk to you today. Your work provides a glimpse of hope in the midst of all the challenges around us. Can you please introduce yourself and your field of study and work? And please tell us a little bit about the human rights projects you are currently working on:
Sure. Pleasure to talk. I am a political scientist with a Master’s degree in Public Policy Evaluation. I work at the Rosario’s Memory Museum, Argentina as their Institutional Relations Coordinator. The Rosario Memory Museum tries to address the legacy and memories of Argentina’s last military dictatorship, from a local perspective. Our work seeks to leverage the potentiality of art and its diverse languages towards fostering a better understanding and awareness of these complex and difficult issues. I am also currently an assistant professor at the Political Science School of Rosario’s National University where I teach introductory courses related to Political Science and Public Administration. Currently, I am here at Columbia as a fellow in the AHDA program, and I plan to use my time to work on developing a project for the Museum and, of course, to learn and be trained in new skills and ideas.
My main fields of research and interest are cultural studies, and I focus on processes of memory, truth and justice in Argentina and the Latin American region. I am interested in public policies and government: I have concrete experience in the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies, plans and projects, as well as in international cooperation and museology. But all this can be summarized by the following idea: my main goal is to participate in actions within the government and within civil society which can generate a dialogue between generations, preempt future traumas, strengthen democratic values and prevent us from returning to authoritarian regimes.
Specifically, and with this last idea in mind, my project aims to develop new tools for the Museum’s educational programs that relate to the history of state terrorism in Argentina with a view to engage young generations. The idea is to complement our guided tours with some interactive content for smartphones and tablets targeting students who visit the Memory Museum. All this is done with a view to address the growing denial of the horrors of our past, and to discourage hate and misunderstandings in younger generations.
How important are archives to your work and why? How do archives support your work?
In my work in particular, and I believe also in the work of all advocates and practitioners in the human rights field in general, archives are fundamental. They constitute a privileged source of information for research (they support truth and fact finding efforts; they foster a sense of recognition, and hopefully can advance justice efforts regarding past wrongs); they are a unique resource for building dialogue with new generations (post memory constructive discourses), and finally they are a mirror that gives us back an accurate image of the past which can then guide us into a better future. In addition to these practical values, I believe that we have an ethical duty to preserve archives in order to uphold and foster our shared humanity across time, and across violence, difficulties and traumas.
What are some of the challenges you encounter when working with trauma and memory?
As we work with the legacy of traumatic pasts, with memories of genocide and the scenes of the current public debates and avenues of awareness, the main challenge, I believe, is to achieve a balance between the culture of morbidity, which involves falling into a horror show, a voyeurism, and a monolithic, reductive and solemn narrative on the condemnation of human rights violations. Both extremes fail to foster and advance the much needed intergenerational dialogue and both extremes threaten to generate relativism, denial, defensiveness and also “othering” and hate speech, a refusal to accept the other. The key lies in a middle way that succeeds in transmitting trauma, connecting yesterday’s struggles with today’s concerns by mobilizing the senses, the emotions, as well as an affective understanding with a view to create genuine empathy. To achieve that goal, the intersection of disciplines is fundamental: history, political science, archival science, librarianship, communication and art must all come together, intersectionally and be activated and articulated through innovative projects that can touch people, and open up vistas of new dialogue and awareness.
How do archives support, complement, expand on the work of human rights activists in general? What are some of the challenges you encounter when trying to use and access human rights archives, or when you are trying to incorporate, or build a human rights archive in your own work?
From my point of view, I see archives as the materiality of memory. You can work with art and generate a new, forward looking sensibility, but that will be a product of the memorization process. On the other hand, the archives will still be alive, even when a government has denial policies, so, now, later, at some point, someone will be able to take them and raise their voice saying: “I think something else happened here”. They can use archvies to speak truth to power. Of course, this is assuming that the archives are protected! (Laughs). That is why archivists and human rights activists are key allies.
You asked about the challenges archivists/human rights advocates face. They are numerous. For me a few stand out: One of the fundamental challenges in building human rights archives is to, first, decide what is part of the archive and what is not. And then the technical work of organizing, preserving and making available a collection of documents in such a way that the archive is useful to the general public and to the specialist. I’d like to refer you here to the Rosario Memory Museum’s Documentary Center‘s excellent work.
Can you comment on the social life of human rights archives: What does the way a society uses human rights archives tell us about various aspects of that society? (feel free to give examples)
I think a specialist can best answer this question. But the first thing that comes to my mind is the many survivors and relatives of victims of the last Argentinian dictatorship who come to the Memory Museum in Rosario to donate their documents or personal objects from that period with the intention that someone “will take care of them when I am no longer here, so that the young people know what happened”. In that sense, I believe that an archive’s policy, besides being a path to memory and justice, is also one of reparation for the victims. Here, I would like to recommend this particular project from the Memory Museum: Dejame-que-te-cuente: let me tell you. It is a project that aims to bring the life stories of men and women who were victims of terrorism in the words of their loved ones. The project produces a collection of handmade books in which the protagonists’ relatives tell about aspects of the daily life of the victims. It is a tribute and testimonial to the people who suffered under the state dictatorship and terrorism, in the words of those who love them, and through accounts and vignettes about their daily lives. The project is part of the public display at the Museum, and the testimonies/books are part of the biographical archive that the Museum owns and preserves in its documentary center.
What are some of the silences and gaps you have witnessed in human rights archives in your field? What needs to be documented better?
I think it would be very interesting to start working on documenting the voice of the bystanders, those who were not the direct victims or perpetrators, but those who are the witnesses to this horror. What do they remember? Did they live near detention camps or facilities where the disappeared were tortured? Did they notice anything strange? What did they think at that time, what do they think today?
Have you used the human rights archives at the Center for Human Rights Research and Documentation, CHRDR at the Columbia University Libraries, and if so can you tell us about your experience?
I have not yet had the opportunity to use them, I hope to do so in the near future to get inspiration for my project and for the future of the Memory Museum of Rosario.
Can you share with us some closing remarks regarding your time at AHDA CU? What are some of your plans for the future?
In the short term, my plan is to continue to actively participate in the program sessions, which I have found extremely helpful and enlightening. I came into the program knowing that I had a lot to learn, in fact I believe that I will never stop having that need to learn new things (stories, cases, tools, techniques, etc), but the instructors participating in the AHDA and my fellow students are fantastic. In the medium and long term, I hope to help the Museum continue to grow in the field of human rights and memory both in Latin America and in a global arena.
What keeps you awake at night, and what keeps you going?
I believe the answer to both questions is the same for me: how to reach the new generations, the adults who have not yet come to be interested in our country’s recent past and in the human rights of the present, and how to dialogue with the deniers or defenders of genocide. These two questions keep me awake, but they also fill me with energy to continue working creatively and responsibly.
Thank you, Lucas!
Kaoukab Chebaro, Head of Global Studies, Columbia University Libraries
For further inquiries about the human rights collections at the Columbia University Libraries, and the Center of Human rights Research and Documentation, please check this page: https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/chrdr/chrdrcontact.html
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