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Abigail Winograd

Museums have played a central role in the cultural life of Latin American countries from independence to the present. Art museums in particular have featured prominently in civic, nation-building discourse throughout the region, with the opening of such museums often occurring concurrently with major economic and political changes. Museums, wherever they were founded, helped shape collective and social understanding; they were the institutions par excellence in which hegemonic cultural realities could be defined and reflected.

In the 19th century, countries across the Americas gained their independence from European colonial powers. The newly founded republics urgently felt the need to distance themselves from their colonial pasts and endeavored to establish and construct new national identities. Latin American artists and governments began a concerted effort to celebrate their independence through arts and culture. Both paintings (the preferred form) and cultural institutions aimed to create and promote a usable past: a history replete with heroes, founding myths, and “indigenous” symbols of patriotism. These founding myths favored large-scale history paintings, portraits of liberators, and romantic landscapes, housed in museums built by local elites and governments who understood cultural institutions (art museums as well as encyclopedic museums) to be ideal locations to enshrine the project of a cohesive national identity....