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The Museum of Exile

“Photography and Time at the Border,” by Janet Sternburg, is a multi-part series of essays that explores issues surrounding history, memory, exile and home. The Museum of Exile is the opening essay that focuses on the Museu Memorial d’Exili, in La Jonquera, Spain, juxtaposed with the music of Paco Ibanez. Three Suitcases, a two part commentary, continues this exploration by linking the lives and work of three pivotal figures: Walter Benjamin, Agusti Centelles and Baltasar Garzon, juxtaposed with the music of Lluis Llach and Joan Manuel Serrat.


On January 26th,1939, Barcelona fell to Franco’s troops. With the defeat of the Republicans in Catalonia, the Spanish Civil War was in effect over. When the French border opened soon afterward, 350,000 Spanish citizens fled from fascism and reprisals, going into exile through the Pyrenees, especially via the towns of La Jonquera and Portbou. It was a frantic exodus; only a few days later, on February 10th, Franco’s troops controlled the border crossings.

Now, in Spain at that very border with France, in that town of La Jonquera, is the Museu Memorial d’Exili, inaugurated in 2007. This is not a museum of artifacts; there are no dusty shoes or worn suitcases. This is a museum that tells its stories through photographs treated not as documents but rather as carriers and embodiments of time.

sung by Paco Ibanez, himself one of those who went into exile,
in his setting of a poem by Miguel Hernandez

A museum-goer is asked to begin the visit by taking an elevator to the second floor. Stepping out, directly ahead, one is met by a wall-sized mural, in color, grainy and translucent, of a line of stern-faced people in shabby clothes, This is expected: in context it is clear that they are refugees. But wait — the women are wearing babushkas; and it is in color; surely this can’t be Spain. And it’s not. A wall text informs us that it is Tuzia, Boznia and Herzegovina, 1992. Another step forward, and something very strange happens; a face and then another peer our from behind the column of refugees and, while these faces are also photographic images, they are black and white.

Brilliantly, the exhibit designers have placed a photographic mural of the Spanish Civil War refugees directly behind the Tuzia refugees, both images the same size so that the past bleeds into the present. It is an immediate sign that the idea of exile will not be confined to the period that brought this museum into being: instead one sees the long columns of people who have been straddling the globe in the twentieth and twenty first centuries of exile, migration and diasporas. The effect does not remove the Spanish Civil War refugees from their context; instead, through a simple and profound use of photography, it enlarges the idea of context.

Then one walks into rooms of fire. Giant photographs — fragmented, blurred, colorized — are encased in a dense forest of violently yellow rods serving as partitions through which to glimpse more images.The floors of these rooms within rooms smolder with what look to be red coals, both an evocation of the inferno of bombardment, and also a suggestion of embers not yet banked.

sung by Paco Ibanez in his setting of a poem by Rafael Alberti

The Civil War was supposedly laid to rest by the Pact of Forgetting, an agreement  brokered by both the left and the right after Franco’s death in 1975. At that time all sides believed that a mutual decision to forget was essential to Spain’s transition to democracy. Through a blanket amnesty, no one would be tried or called to account for atrocities committed in the Franco years. For the past ten or so years, there has been a movement to dismantle the Pact, most literally expressed by proposals to find mass graves and disinter the thousands of persons killed by Franco’s death squads. Now, the argument goes, a society cannot move forward by forgetting — an argument that ironically appeals both to Franco’s victims and to his followers who want to resurrect his legacy. However one weighs the havoc that an excavation of the graves would bring, versus the peace of laying loved ones to rest,  there is a further question: If a citizenry has decided to live with a pact of forgetting and then with a resurrection of the past, how does a society hold both decisions together?

Catalonia, that semi-autonomous state from Barcelona to the Pyrenees whose fierce contribution to the Republican effort was honored by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, has made a move toward responding by creating a framework through which such questions can be asked and explored. By creating a network of sites — an itinerary of interpretation centers, markers, viewpoints — in seventeen villages at the Pyrenean border identified by the collective name Espacios de Memoria, the Catalan government has mandated a living organism for recuperation and investigation. At the heart of the itineraries that make up these Espacios de Memoria is The Museum of Exile. It is through the lens of its commitment to critical reflection that one walks downstairs to the space dedicated to temporary exhibits.

When I visited, I was fortunate to encounter “Distancias,” a show of the work of photographer Gustavo Germano whose life project has been to chronicle the passage of time in lives disrupted by repression and dictatorship. Germano finds photographs that had been taken when people were more or less untouched by history; then he photographs those same people in the same pose, as here six decades later. “Distancias” is the second of a trilogy; the first was “Ausencias” (Absences) photographed in Germano’s native Argentina where he found photographs of families when they were whole and then ‘retook’ the image as the group is now, no longer intact, with the absence of a person who has since ‘disappeared’ throbbing like a phantom limb.

What the images of “Distancias” create is not only a recognition of the passage of time but also a space for imagination. What has happened in these lives between their youth and later years?

We know that this couple left Spain and lived in exile. We can infer that the husband has died and the wife has gone on to a dignified old age. But what of the years in between?

How were these particular lives shaped by exile? By what intangibles? The effort of imagination that we are asked to invest in this exhibition does not tilt toward any known direction; neither to the fictional nor the documentary but rather to an act of encompassing empathy.

sung by Paco Ibanez in his setting of a poem by Lorca


Hovering above the central space of The Museum of Exile hangs a huge  panel with a single line of text. In Catalan, a language suppressed by Franco and now gloriously resurgent, is a line from King Lear: La llibertat viu lluny d’aqui, i aixo es l’exili, or Freedom lives hence;  and banishment is here. The line is spoken by Kent when Lear banishes him; in essence he is saying where there is tyranny, there can be no freedom.

La llibertat viu lluny d’aqui, i aixo es l’exili. I think that this line is Janus-faced. It is spoken looking back, with recognition and sorrow that this moment, this situation,  has come to pass. And it is spoken looking ahead, the future of ‘hence’ that takes Kent away from the tyrant into uncharted territory. That the museum chooses to suspend this line of text so that it broods over its main room is a sign of a deep and complex understanding of the fates of the people it remembers, placing them at the border in an eternal moment where looking back and looking forward are only a half-turn away, and then in the stride and stumble of going forward.

sung by Paco Ibanez in his setting of a poem by Antonio Machado


  1. I kept thinking of Walter Benjamin of course and his failed attempt to cross the Pyrenees. Trouble at the border. Isn’t that always the challenge?

    Thank you for reminding us.

  2. Howard B. says:

    I am interested in the Pact of Forgetrting about which you write. I knew nothing about it.
    I am reminded of how South Africa dealt with a similar challenge shortly after democracy came to the country: it established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” and called to testify at it people from all levels of society who had victimized people under apartheit. If you spoke of what you did – as horrible as it was – there was no penalty or punishment. If you refused to admit what you had done, penalties were most severe and virtually automatic.
    Thank you Janet for telling and showing and explaining and playing the music of all this in Spain/Catalonia. Like so many, I have been to this region and thought I knew it’s history. You helped make it much clearer.

  3. The Pact of Forgetting and the South African amnesty brings to mind the need many of us feel to have a thorough investigation of the causes of the housing bubble and to observe the principle of government under law to bring to justice those who have committed criminal acts. No amnesty or forgetting here, with millions still unemployed, more folks in poverty and homeless, young people losing a decade of work in career and service.
    Thanks for bringing this museum to our attention; it’s on our list if we do, indeed, travel next year. Oh yes, and thanks for the harmonious musical background.

  4. This is a brilliant experience of music, photographs, poetry, pithy descriptions and commentary, and the complete package is closer to a theatrical performance than a blog. I remember visiting the Lorca family in Spain in the spring of 1971 with Basil Langton as he was preparing to stage the world premiere of “Yerma,” based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s play with music by Heitor Villa Lobos, at the Santa Fe Opera. Lorca’s brother Paco, a friend of Basil’s, drove us to all the relevant locations related to the play, mentioned in passing as we approached the “House of Bernarda Alba” that he dared not stop or risk getting out of the car. The Franco years were still very much alive. During this same trip Paco arranged for us to meet Rafael Alberti, a great pleasure.

  5. Howard B. says:

    For clarification regarding my original post regarding the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the amnesty it granted…it granted that amnesty only after extracting a rightful penalty against people who had done terrible things – thesde people had to stand up in public anmd admit to the world their heinous crimes. While the commission’s witnesses certainly didn’t include all who committed the crimes, it did include thousands of people of high, medium, and low status in the system. Think if such a broad-based activity had taken place in Germany in the late 40’s.

  6. Important, beautiful, heartfelt and haunting… thank you for sharing your incredible work and insight.

  7. Jim Krusoe says:

    Thank you for this, and most especially for the music of Paco Ibanez, which I hadn’t known, and embodies a dignity and humanity that is sadly rare these days.

  8. This is a wonderful piece. I read it through with the music on—sublime. I hope to go to the museum one day.

  9. Exile, forgetting, atrocities, amnesty, reconciliation, repercussions!
    Look around us in the world today, they are here again (or still?)
    Thanks for presenting it so beautifully.

  10. Selma Holo says:

    As usual, Janet, you hit the right note at the right time. Yes, the people keep moving, keep crossing borders, keep on suffering, and this daring and imaginative museum reminds us of the similarities of the pain felt in all the leavings and comings. Your brilliant review — the combination of your poignant words (ah,the recollection of the phantom limb) — with the photos both from the museum and your own, deepen the usual experience of a “review” to a work of art in its own right.

    We do need to watch the process of the undoing of the pacto de olvido, the pact of forgetting in Spain. Right now Judge Garzon is trying to undo this pact, and is I think, being prosecuted himself by the Partido Popular. There is a profound fear in the prospect of remembering and, certainly, of the unintended consequences that remembering might bring. Still, not moving forward into that dark land might yet erupt with other long suppressed unimaginable suffering.

  11. Cecily Kwon says:

    The mix of music, poetry, photos in the article brings a new dimension to the magazine. This is beautiful!

  12. Michael Holzman says:

    Dear Janet,

    A beautiful piece of work.

    It seems to be little remembered that at the end of World War II it was widely expected that the Franco regime would go the way of Vichy France. It was Anglo-American planning for a war against the Soviet Union, planning beginning in 1946, that save Franco and condemned the Spanish people to another twenty years of Fascism.

  13. This article brings The Museum of Exile to vivid life with beautifully drawn descriptions and music (the melancholy music adds yet another dimension—does the Museum use music?) . In fact, the layering of imagery of past and near present exiles seems like one of Sternbergs photographs. How can people just forget atrocities? That idea always seemed absurd to me.

  14. Dan Mosenkis says:

    An eloquent depiction of the awful past which does not die, and the muddiness of life, where we encounter paradoxes and dilemmas which cannot be resolved, and must live in the space between the extremes. Is amnesty the same as forgiveness? (“Can one forgive a dying mass murderer who begs for it?” asks Simon Wiesenthal in the Sunflower .) Making matters worse is the role of current left-right politics in the debate over amnesty and investigation.

  15. sonny fox says:

    Opening the Times Quotidian is like opening a Christmas present each time. I look forward to the unique experiences I derive from your choice and presentation of the subects. Thank you.

  16. Beau Beausoleil says:

    Tragedy and evil have their own memories, ones that we rarely see into, but these opaque memories move us, carry us through our own everyday, with or without our consent.

    This museum, and you Janet, seem to understand that, showing us what is at the edge of the frame of the lives that we cannot name.

    In the last breath of these people they took in the memory of those they loved, and along with that, the last mixture of pain and truth that had come to rest on their tongues.

    And in the first breath/cry of each newborn that memory is given back to the world for us to find.

    Well done Janet!!

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