The Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá


"Paul Gauguin, Panama's Dream," 2012. Photos courtesy of Museo Del Canal Interoceanico

Developing Panamanian Cultural Identity

By Angeles Ramos Baquero

A Panamanian child visiting the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá—the Canal Museum—might be fascinated to learn how a slice of watermelon started a riot that left 18 dead in 1856. She might react with pride that this was the first citizen insurrection against the U.S. presence in Panamá. The incident started when Jack Olivier, a drunk U.S. soldier, refused to pay for a five-cent slice of watermelon from José Manuel Luna, a Panamanian vendor. 

If the child is lucky, she’ll have a guide just about her age—part of the museum’s program in training young guides (see the charming video of child guides at http://www.museodelcanal.com).

On the other hand, the person fascinated by the documentation of the so-called Watermelon War might not be a child at all. She might be a historian, researching the museum’s ample archives.

The Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá opened to the public, including school groups, tourists and researchers, in September 1997. As a museum, we acknowledged the Panamanians’ leading role in their own history, seeking to strengthen cultural identity to prepare the nation for the full administration of the Panama Canal at the end of 1999. 

Our first step was to reach out to the community to ask for assistance in building up a material foundation to support our mission. An ad in a newspaper brought us an unexpectedly large response that enabled us to begin building a collection. This response was all the more impressive considering that many people had lost faith in the capacity of museums to protect the nation’s heritage, after years of watching how other cultural institutions in the country had fallen into a state of neglect.

In the process of building the collection we have also tried to rebuild the public’s trust by establishing the best professional practices, abiding by international guidelines, and helping to train a new generation of museum professionals deeply committed to the ethics of museum practice. 

Our efforts resulted in a change of heart among the citizens that became evident by the phenomenal growth of the collection. In 1997, the museum inaugurated its exhibition halls with a collection of 420 objects; since then, the collection has grown up to 16,000 objects—ranging from dresses to photographs to ship models.

These objects are more than just objects. They seek to reinforce the museum’s mission as a permanent, non-profit institution for the service of the community and its development. Through careful selection, these objects and materials related to the history, construction, technology and operation of the Panama Canal are a tool to collect, preserve, safeguard, disseminate and carry out research on related topics. They are a way of disseminating information and offering testimonies on the Panama Canal history to educate the public.

THE EXHIBITION: PANAMÁ, LEADING ITS HISTORY

Putting together the permanent exhibit proved to be an exploration not only of triumphs but also of the darker, more tragic moments of the national past. In terms of script and graphic design, the project pioneered a new narrative of Panamá’s history. At the core of the exhibition was this conviction: no history of the Panama Canal could ignore the country’s rich history.

We articulate this interpretation by reflecting our diversity. The exhibit establishes the importance of the original indigenous communities in our history and cultural identity. It reflects on the importance of the Spaniards’ first assessments for the possibility of a canal in the 16th century, the establishment of the earliest commercial routes, and frequent threats by other countries aspiring to control the territory, all of which very much shaped our destiny.

The tumultuous gold rush times witnessed the tensions and struggles between Panamanians and Americans, as highlighted by the watermelon slice incident, a historical landmark for the Panamá’s relationship with the United States.

The construction of the inter-oceanic railroad and the massive Chinese immigration that had such a huge impact in our demographic and culture, the French effort to build the canal, and Panamá’s independence from Colombia are still the subjects of heated debates among scholars, and the museum has become an important resource for explorations of these and other topics.

The museum considers the complexities of the social implications of the construction of the canal by the Americans, the engineering challenges, the scientific discoveries, the massive West Indian immigration. The racial segregation of the Canal Zone and its social impact are also featured, with the museum rescuing crucial testimonies of this cultural heritage.

The West Indies’ strong contribution to the Panamanian identity is a driving force of our culture. The collection of postcards donated to the museum by Charles Muller was registered in 2011 in the Memory of the World by UNESCO, entitled “Silver Men: West Indian Labourers at the Panama Canal.” It is the first Panamanian documentation to obtain this designation. This exhibit contributes to the preservation and conservation of the history of West Indies workers in the construction of the canal.

Researchers in the U.S. National Archives (NARA) discovered almost ten hours of original film from the 1920s to 1930s featuring the construction sites, laborers, Panamá’s cities and landscape. These images now are shown at the Museo del Canal, along with the collection of objects illustrating everyday life in the Canal Zone. 

Museum exhibits also interpret the daunting engineering challenges faced during the construction of the canal and the strong influence that the American way of life in the Canal Zone had on the Panamanian culture. The museum considers the perspectives of people of different nationalities and backgrounds, including Panamanians and people from the United States who lived in the Zone, known as “Zonians.” One member of this community is Mrs. Estelle Davison Crews, born in the Canal Zone at the Gorgas Hospital in 1947 and now living in New Scotland, Canada. Over the past five years, she has donated to the museum 458 pieces about her life in the Canal Zone, ranging from her baptismal dress to her high school class ring.

The exhibit devoted to Panama’s vindication to the right over the canal and its territory provides an ongoing exchange of testimonies and perspectives that gave a voice to a generation. The input of the community and oral history has played a key role in developing the museum’s approach to these complex issues.

The Panama Canal expansion that began in 2007 presented the museum with a new challenge: how to document this historical event to allow for the future interpretation of this history.

During the past fifteen years, the museum has served its mission with a broad range of activities: building its collection, establishing permanent exhibits, organizing temporary and traveling exhibits and promoting educational and cultural activities.

A number of temporary exhibits have enabled the Museo to address a wide range of topics, including collaborations with community groups. Others offer opportunities to interpret specific issues through private collections donated to the museum. The Ricardo Gago Salinero Canal Collection is an extraordinary example of such a partnership, enabling the museum to organize various important exhibitions such as “Pasajes Panameños” and “Su Donación es Nuestra Exhibición” in 2010, and “Un Coleccionista del Siglo XXI” in 2006 with a book project with the same title in 2012. During the past 15 years Gago Salinero donated 4,000 pieces to the museum collection.

Through more than 305 temporary exhibitions, the museum stimulates a deeper insight into less known historical events, such as the failed Scottish Colony in Darién and the story of the Japanese engineer Akira Aoyama. In 2009, the museum opened the first exhibit of molas, textiles produced by the Guna indigenous people in Panamá, loaned by the Jose Felix Llopis Foundation. The temporary exposition “Paul Gauguin, el Sueño de Panamá” opened in December 2012. This exposition came to the museum through the generosity of institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay, Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Bibliothèque, Collection Jacques Doucet (INHA), Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Société de Géographie de Paris, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims, Musée départemental Maurice Denis de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Manchester Art Gallery, as well as private collectors from France and Mexico.

The museum cultivates a strong relationship with the regional museum community, which allows us to develop a richer perspective on issues and present our audience with a global perspective. The Museo is not just a reflection of historical scholarship but has become an influence in its own right in reshaping how historians tell Panamanian history.

… the Museo del Canal Interoceánico became my classroom for the study of Panama’s past.

Aims McGuinness,

Path of Empire: Panama and the 
California Gold Rush,

Cornell University Press, 2008. 

… the brilliant Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá illuminated my perspective on the canal in numerous ways.

Julie Greene,

The Canal Builders: Making American’s Empire at the Panama Canal,

Penguin Group Incorporated. 2009.

The Museo del Canal has also had an impact on the international community. It led to the development of the Honduras Museum for the National Identity, and created, in a joint venture with the Smithsonian Institution, the Panamanian Passages temporary exhibit in Washington D.C., in 2009, which honors Panamanian cultural heritage and the process by which Panamanians have reclaimed their own history.

Until the 1980s, the history of the Panama Canal had more often than not been told by non-Panamanians. The canal was portrayed as if it existed somehow apart from the Panamanian nation; as if Panamanians were only passive witnesses to their own history. 

Too often, historians of the canal have ignored or only reluctantly acknowledged that Panamá has been a sovereign nation with its own government, culture, and history. The only importance given to the country was the assessment of its geographical position, the narrowest point in the Western Hemisphere between the Atlantic and Pacific. 

During the construction years of the canal, between 1904 and 1914, U.S. newspapers often promoted the effort as a symbol of the United States’ mission to bring civilization and prosperity to the rest of the hemisphere and to the world. The traditional historical studies only considered the most conspicuous individuals, describing them as civilization heroes. The importance of the canal workers was relegated to the margins and the Panamanian nation was ignored. As Julie Green noted in The Canal Builders (pp. 361-363): 

… during the world’s fair in San Francisco, two great themes were notably absent. The first was the role played by the Republic of Panama… another remarkable absence at the fair was the workingmen and workingwomen who actually built the canal.

This U.S.-centered historical approach only began to change in the late 1980s, with the work of authors such as Michael L. Conniff, Peter Szok, Thomas L. Pearcy and Aims McGuinness.

But by then the misplaced emphasis had already implanted in many Panamanians a deep necessity to search and vindicate their national identity, and, to others, it brought a sense of inadequacy felt until the return of the canal to Panamá on December 31, 1999. 

Meanwhile, in the country itself, many Panamanians felt estranged from the canal. The Canal Zone that denied Panamanians access to the waterway that ran through the center of their nation also functioned as a barrier that prevented them from claiming their own past. 

Through the Museo del Canal’s commitment to working with different communities inside and outside Panamá, its relevant collections have made that vision totally obsolete. From a museum that literally began with no collection of its own, the Museo has become a place where Panamanians can find a voice of their own.

Angeles Ramos Baquero is the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá. During her tenure, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá became an active member of the local chapter of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Ramos Baquero received a Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Seville, Spain, and a Master’s Degree in Art History, University of Navarra, Spain.