Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Museum Curation, Representation

Chile: Doing research in times of social change

Catalina Urtubia Figueroa

Just two months ago, Chilean president Sebastian Piñera stated in a televised interview that Chile was “an oasis in Latin America”, referring to its stable democracy and growing economy. On October 18th, it became evident that Chile was more likely to be a mirage when mass protests kicked off in Santiago due to a rise in the subway ticket fare. This rapidly escalated and led to an ongoing social movement and mass protests in the whole country, including a historical demonstration with over 1.2 million participants on October 25th. The Chilean protests now demand social justice in a broader sense, questioning the severe inequality in the country. These protests have been followed by brutal police repression, resulting in over 700 allegations of human rights violations since mid-October. This piece of writing is a reflection about how this situation has challenged and influenced my research, as a Chilean PhD student at King’s; but also, and more importantly, it thinks over the social responsibilities of academic research.

The Santiago Times


The Chilean protests found me at the end of my first year as a PhD student in the CMCI department. Throughout this year, I’ve been researching about cultural diversity representation in Chilean art museums, especially in the area of collections. That said, one of the key elements in my research was to explore the responsibility of cultural institutions in promoting cultural democracy, especially in the post-dictatorship period (onwards 1990). Cultural participation in Chile has been historically low, and this was one of my core arguments to highlight the social role of museums in promoting spaces for citizens’ participation.

Then, suddenly, Chile woke up. Protests in Chile increasingly adopted a participative approach, questioning the political elite and claiming for the need of more democratized institutions. An example of this is a widespread demand for a change of constitution (as the current one was created during the dictatorship) through a constitutive process that allows citizens to vote for direct representatives, whose only purpose would be drafting a new constitution. As a result of these protests, a referendum has been approved to take place in April 2020, for Chileans to vote if they want a new constitution and what mechanism will be used for that purpose. At the same time, different sectors and neighbourhoods have been organizing Citizen Open Forums (called Cabildos) to discuss the situation in the country and developing proposals for a new Chile.

Like every other public institution in the country, cultural institutions have been directly challenged by social protests. Outside the National Library, protesters hanged a canvas that reads as “Poetry is in the street”, and in the front of the Fine Arts Museum there are several graffiti questioning elitism in cultural institutions. Facing this situation, many cultural workers have organized different spaces for social action. The most successful so far has been the Citizens’ Cultural Open Forum (Cabildo Cultural Cuidadano), organized by workers from various cultural institutions. This event, which was summoned through social media, ended up with over 2000 attendees, which surprised not only the organizers but the sector as a whole.

All that I’ve mentioned above has had different impacts on my research. Not only because it has challenged presumptions that were deeply embedded in my approach, but also because of the distress it causes me on a personal level. This has kept me thinking of ways I can make my research meaningful for the situation the country is facing now; while dealing with the contradictions of sitting in my desk in London, funded by the same government that now is being accomplice of over 20 deaths, hundreds of severe eye injuries and several allegations of sexual violence by agents of the state.

While I’ve found frustrating to realize that I just can’t address all these issues in my research, I’ve been thinking of ways to connect it with the contingency. Firstly, the way the protests have directly challenged cultural institutions in Chile has given me a strong argument to highlight the urgency of reforming museums in the country. At the same time, this has supported the idea that the democratization of the museums’ spaces should be crucial in my discussion. Based on this, while my former approach was strongly focused on institutional perspectives and professional practice, now I consider fundamental to look at museums’ communities and their demands with more attention.

This also demand changes in my methodology, which originally focused on interviews with museums’ professionals and analysis of museums’ permanent collections. My current methodology aims to include testimonies related to the cultural open forums, through participant observation of these events and posterior interviews with the forums’ attendees and organizers. This has meant to develop modifications in my ethics clearance (in terms of sampling of participants), which was first granted before the social protests in Chile started. Besides this, I’ve also included questions regarding the current Chilean scenario and the role of discussion spaces –such as the open forums– as part of the interviews I’ll be conducting with museums’ professionals.

Lastly, I consider this rethinking of my research in relation to the political contingency as one of the most meaningful learnings of my first year as a PhD student. This has pushed me to address what I think is the social responsibility of academic research. This has meant to change plans and understand research as an organic process that must acknowledge current and ongoing events. It has also placed me not as an observer, but as an active participant of social change, what has made me reflect more strictly on the resources and tools I have on hand to take action. The protests in Chile have become a wake-up call for me as a researcher. I’m sure the Chilean social movement will keep on challenging my research in the upcoming years, and for that, I’m deeply grateful.