A house-museum on an untamed island of Tierra del Fuego: a journey of art and science that began 20 years ago

Twenty years ago I visitedPuerto Yartou for the first time, an island area in Tierra del Fuego where a wooden sawmill operated between 1906 and 1947, a heritage site linked to my family history. Today, this place houses the Alberto Baeriswyl House Museum (CAB Patagonia), a project with which I have sought to recover that historical memory that dialogues with various imaginaries of Magallanes, as well as generate a space for reflection and research through art and science.

The historical journey that we articulate –available in a museum application– begins with the human settlement that would have occurred after the walk through the Bering Strait; then we explore the indigenous nations of Tierra del Fuego: the Selknam, land nomads; the Kawéskar as maritime nomads and the Yámanas, the southernmost people in the world; and we also follow the genocide perpetrated after colonization. In addition, we address the role of the Swiss settlers after the arrival of the Chilean State, the adventures of the pirates and sailors who inhabited Punta Arenas, the religious missions, and the devastation of the indigenous peoples.

I would say that the CAB project always inhabited me in some way even before its execution, whether it was because of the family story of my ancestors who arrived in Punta Arenas in 1887, or because of the interest that I had since I was a child imagining stories of pirates in the south of the world. Two decades ago I came to Yartou as part of an artistic exploration called Raíces, which sought to portray abandoned places, this being one of the locations along with Punta Arenas and Río San Juan.

Upon arrival, I discovered that this would be one of those magical trips that changes your life. I started restoring a house that was falling down, doing the interior design with a historical vision that sought to replicate the antique furniture. Once funds were raised, and a foundation was created, we started thinking about how to inhabit the space. First, we imagined a shelter, then an exhibition space and finally, we arrived at the idea of a habitable house that could be, at the same time, a museum.

We have tried to make the museography at certain levels imperceptible. It will depend on the interest of the explorer how deeply they want to delve into the history of this space, which is, in parallel, an eco-cultural tourism project and a heritage restoration initiative. This deployment is related to special interest tourism that brings together the concerns of visitors to museums, archaeological or memory sites; traces that I personally used to look for when I traveled.

Hierarchies destabilized by the force of nature

The experience in Puerto Yartou is very powerful. There are times of the day when if you go out, the wind blows so hard that it takes your breath away, afternoons when it starts to hail in the middle of a sunny day, or mornings when a little rain turns everything into mud. The supposed human-nature hierarchy is erased here, since you are at the mercy of natural forces and that can cause you to rethink your paradigms.

This is a place to transform our perspective regarding the power of the human species over nature. Once you understand that, it changes the way you explore this landscape that is accessed from the pampas, where extensive fields of low vegetation abound, until you reach a lush subantarctic forest of the genus Nothofagus: coihues, lengas and ñirres settle in a road also inhabited by canelo trees. Dolphins and whales that transit between Punta Arenas and Porvenir are other beings that accompany the trip to the island.

From these encounters with nature, questions, transdisciplinary explorations, and narratives begin to emerge. It has been complex to build stories around this territory, however, thanks to the thinking that arises from contemporary art, historical contents that dialogue with disciplines such as philosophy, ethics and science have been mobilized.

From a more current vision, decolonial views have been introduced on events that should not occur again –such as the genocide of indigenous peoples– calling for critical thinking to see what is necessary to return to, according to notions of museum or collecting, and also what we must question. This is without the intention of judging, but rather of building a present and future in more conscious ways, through what we do as an institution and as artists.

The challenge of cultural management in extreme areas

Another important challenge, along with articulating stories that bring together multiple temporalities, has been carrying out cultural management in an extreme territory. This isolation implies a great financial effort, and although we apply for competitive funds, it is complex for a small team that ranges from two to three people, or a little more depending on the seasons. We are aware that CAB is not a massive cultural tourism project nor do we want it to be that way, but many times we do not fit into the metrics requested by government agencies, so we resort to research projects.

In this sense, artistic and research residencies have been presented as valuable encounters for experimentation and creation. Across three cycles we have been accompanied by Latin American and European artists and scientists. At this moment, we are developing the art and science project Fungicosmology, funded by Pro Helvetia, which addresses the intersection of three territories: CAB Patagonia; an immersion in Manaus, Brazilian Amazon, together with LabVerde and the Amazon Research Institute (INPA); and explorations in Switzerland with the Artist in Lab, through a program of the Zurich University of the Arts, a pioneering institution in the intersection of art and science.

Thus, we are working in three territories crossed by the fungal issue, where we already have three years of data. These days we are on the ground here in Puerto Yartou, with Swiss, Brazilian and Chilean guests, where each team includes a curator, an artist, and scientists [1]. This is an initiative that will last between 5 to 10 years, with three field trips and one publication. Fungicosmology is a new experience at CAB, because it also considers laboratory genetic testing for mycological experiments. It is a long-term project that advances as science does.

Currently, CAB Patagonia has been reactivated after a pandemic that isolated us again. Today, there is a bridge to get to the house – before you had to cross a river–, around which we have built a script that contains an investigation deployed in augmented reality, narratives in motion that seek to keep the museum alive based on reflections of artists and researchers who work with us.

As for visitors, anyone can arrive on their own in the months of January and February –a time when the weather allows the space to be open– as long as it is in a vehicle suitable for crossing the territory. Precisely because of the difficulties of access, today we are also developing education programs and applying for funds to bring people who do not have the resources to come. That is one of the great dreams we have and we know that the way to achieve it is in a context of collaboration.

I would like to conclude this reflection by emphasizing the importance of collective work. At the end of last year we were part of Galafest 2 [2], an event that brought together artists and managers integrated into an international platform of initiatives around environmental sustainability through creative practices. These types of encounters show the need for connection between humans, as gregarious beings. The collective, even in extreme and isolated areas, is essential to generate relationships that enable the existence of long-standing projects, and that strengthen the dialogue between art and science, to continue creating possibilities of subsistence and coexistence between multiple beings and vestiges of the planet.

[1]From Chile, the artists Seba Calfuqueo and Valentina Serrati, the mycologist Patricia Silva Flores and myself as the curator; from Brazil, the artist Jorge Mena Barreto, the mycologist Ju Simon and the curator is Lilian Fraiji from LABVerde; from Switzerland the artist Maya Minder, the curator is Irene Jedigger and we are also accompanied by Margaux Schwab, director of the Food Culture Days project, a biennial that addresses the theme of food, together with mycologists Martina Peter and Benjamin Dophin from WSL, institute of scientific investigation.

[2]Meeting held in December 2023 in Bosque Pehuén, an area protected by Fundación Mar Adentro, located in the Andean Araucanía. The encounter considered methodological exchanges, dialogues, readings, walks and collaborative creations.

María Luisa Murillo

María Luisa Murillo is an artist, photographer and cultural manager. Bachelor of Arts from the Catholic University. Art and Project Director of the Alberto Baeriswyl House-Museum in Tierra del Fuego and the CAB Art, Sciences and Humanities Residency.

Her work is based on the problem of memory and human habitation. Since 2009, her research has focused on the territory of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, where in addition to carrying out her museological project, she has portrayed the human and more-than-human landscape of those southern lands. She has exhibited her work both in Chile and abroad, including the Palacio de la Moneda Cultural Center, the Museum of Visual Arts, the XS Gallery, the Barcelona CCCB Contemporary Cultural Center and the Kadist Paris Foundation, East Asia Contemporary Art Shanghai, and has participated in Fairs such as CHACO and ARTEBA.