A magnificent building in downtown Medellin houses a priceless legacy, one that can help examine the recent past and guide the way to building a future.
By Laxmi Murthy*


The imposing edifice of the Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture in the Plaza Botero is a fit place to house the historical archives of the Antioquia department or province of Colombia. Designed by Belgian architect Agustín Goovaerts in a Gothic Revival style, the construction of this ornate public building began in 1925, and went on for 12 years. Due to lack of funds, the remaining part of the structure was completed in a different, more simple modernist style. Originally the official building for the Government of Antioquia, it now serves several public purposes.

We head across the busy Plaza Botero to visit the Archivo Historico de Antioquia, and are received by Jose Luis Vargas,an archivist, who lovingly shares stories about the archive and its contents. I learn how the water sloshed into the low-lying building, endangering the precious documents and artefacts. Subsequent refurbishing at a huge expense to the exchequer has ensured temperature and humidity controlled environment for the fragile riches within.

 

Record keeping began with Spanish colonization in 1692, and the bulk of the records are in Spanish. The carefully preserved treasures might sound disappointingly dull – tax papers, documents about births and deaths and attendance records of labourers building the railroad, to name just a few. Occasionally, an intricately painted coloured first page catches the eye. Church records are among the most extensive of the texts in the archive, appearing to be lifeless stacks of paper bound together for posterity.


But this is the stuff that history is made of. The history of ordinary people, of the men and women who toiled, fought, paid taxes, loved, married, raised children and died. The documents are testimony to the troubled past of slavery and exploitation. Rows upon rows of bound volumes testify to the slave trade which began in the early 16th century. Detailed records exist of slaves shipped from Western Africa to work in the gold mines, emerald mines, sugarcane, cotton and tobacco farms. Cartegena on the Colombian coast was the gateway for the entry of slave labour to South America. While records in that coastal town were destroyed, the Department of Antioquia has preserved records of this slice of history. Slavery was abolished in 1851, but no compensation was given to the former slaves who till today live in penury and deprivation. The archives are a valuable record for Afro-Colombians (who comprise about a quarter of the population of Colombia) wishing to trace their descent from families in Arica they were torn away from centuries ago. Jose Luis, also, points out the elaborate hand-designs on the fore edges of ledgers and registers, an ingenious method of protecting the records from tampering or single pages being torn out.

Valuable records for Afro-Colombians

Jose Luis proudly displays the more ‘exciting’ items in the archive, precious to the sea-faring Spanish conquistadors – sketches showing a step-by-step construction of a ship. A document dating back to 1797 is a navigation map of the Cuban coast. It is easy to spot Guantanamo.

 

Navigation map of the Cuban coast (1797)
Navigation map of the Cuban coast (1797)


Present day archivists are doing their best to ensure that the records do not deteriorate. Written in carbon and coal ink on cotton weave paper, damaged records are painstakingly restored by minute scraping with razors, washed if the ink is not water soluble and further cleaned with an alkaline solution. Indexing, cataloguing and digitization are ongoing activities. Jose Luis laments that the only university in Colombia teaching restoration has recently shut down. The lack of attention to preserving the past, it would seem, is an universal concern for the present.

*Laxmi Murthy, Director - Hri, visited Colombia for the Prince Claus Fund Network Partner Meeting in the summer of 2015. The meeting was hosted by our Network Partner, Museo de Antioquia