Uruguay Eyes a New ‘Museum of the Sea’
Por Marcelo Jelen
A project to salvage the remains of some 200 shipwrecks would be a major step towards preserving Uruguay’s underwater cultural heritage, considered a key element for reconstructing history.
The murky waters of the bay of Montevideo, in the Uruguayan capital, will not block the gaze of the curious as they seek out the remains of the more than 200 ships that have sunk there since 1772.
"There is a museum here that lies just skin-deep," said Canadian archeologist Robert Grenier, president of the International Committee for Underwater Heritage, pointing to the hulls that emerged just above the waves in Montevideo’s harbor, according to the experts who accompanied him in a boat trip through the area.
Grenier, also head of a state-run Canadian group entrusted with submarine heritage and advisor to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), visited Montevideo twice, the latest trip last October, to join Uruguayan specialists in studying the potential recovery of hidden treasures.
Grenier's visit occurred as part of a project of the Canadian governmental International Development Research Center (IDRC), to propose mechanisms for recovering subaquatic heritage from the bay of Montevideo, so far unknown except to specialists.
Canada is a pioneer in underwater archeology, due to its extensive and shipwreck-prone coastline and its long seafaring tradition, as well as to its government's cultural policies.
At the conclusion of its study, the IDRC proposed creating a 'Museo del Mar' (Museum of the Sea) to serve as home to reproductions of the wealth sunken in the area that "could constitute key pieces in the historic knowledge of Uruguayan society."
Though there is still no timeline for construction, the planned museum may be built on the Atarazana, a sort of coastal balcony where sailing ships were tended during Montevideo’s colonial era, said Nery González, of the government's National Heritage Commission, in a Tierramérica interview.
Constructed in the city's historic quarter in 1760, the Atarazana is one of three structures of its type in the world - alongside those of Barcelona and Santo Domingo - of which vestiges remain today. It currently belongs to the Banco República, a state-owned bank.
Montevideo was on of the main ports in the Americas of the Spanish Empire. The high volume of traffic together with the complicated wind patterns led to a large number of shipwrecks along the Uruguayan coast.
At least 430 vessels were involved in more than 200 shipwrecks in the bay since 1772, when the frigate 'La Aurora' sank as it set sail for Spain with a load of Peruvian silver, to 1930, when the 'Verano' went under as it transferred leather shipments to a Dutch steamship.
Many local families hold objects rescued from the shipwrecks, including 19th-century stoves that still work, Federico Burone, Latin American director of IDRC, told Tierramérica.
The bay of Montevideo is where the Uruguayan shipwreck heritage is concentrated, and Burone proposes integrating the community, the government and private enterprise in salvaging this legacy, such that cultural interest takes priority over income from the goods on the international market for antique artifacts.
* Marcelo Jelen is an IPS editor and correspondent.