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First in our series of interviews with international museum professionals – Natalia Keller, Museo Nacional de Bella Artes, Chile

In the first of a new series of reports from international ICOM members Natalia Keller talked to Catherine McDermott in Lastarria, the capital’s cultural district about her museum and the museum sector in Chile.

Natalia KellerNatalia Keller is a researcher in the Collections Department at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile.


CMD:  Would you tell ICOM UK members about the MNBA?

NK:   The MNBA is the leading art institution in Chile.   It has a collection of over 6000 objects mainly from Latin America and Europe that span across the early modern to 21st century contemporary art.   It was founded in 1880 and now occupies the Palacio de Belles Artes, now an iconic Santiago building in the Parque Forestal.  MNBA was designed by Chilean architect Emile Jequier opened in 1910 to celebrate the centenary of Chilean independence.


CMD:  What is your role in the MNBA Collections Department?

NK:  My background is work in the curatorial and collection departments of cultural institutions in Poland, the Netherlands and Chile.  As an art historian in MNBA I now focus on the influence of European art in Latin America.  For the last four years this research supports MNBA Curatorial, Education and Communication Departments, contributing to the care, display, study, and interpretation of our collections.  Additionally my responsibilities include those of an assistant registrar, assistant storage manager, researcher and curator.


CMD:  What challenges do you think are facing MNBA in 2018?

NK:  Being one of the most important museum in Chile does not exempt the MNBA facing the same problems as many global cultural institutions, such as budget and human resources shortages, state support and the challenges of maintaining a building now 118 years old with its constant need for infrastructure modernisation.

A more local challenge however is building Chilean public support and attendance for our museum and for the wider museum sector.  It was a situation that came into sharp focus in December 2015 when national cultural institutions went on strike to demand a higher profile in government cultural planning and policy.  Although public museums, libraries and archives closed for a month there was limited media coverage and wider public support.  In 2018 one of MNBA’s most important challenges  (and that of other Chilean museums) is to increase visitor numbers and make museums and the value of all cultural institutions play a more important role in Chile.


Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes ChileCMD:  What projects is MNBA currently working on?

NK:  MNBA has engaged in projects to increase repeat visitors and build new audiences.  One important focus has been on community involvement projects, exhibitions about social issues that challenge understandings of Chilean histories.  These recent MNBA exhibition and programmes include migration and gender equality topics such as, the course Beca migrante/Migrant Grant (2015) or the education department’s show Reflejos/Reflections (2017) with the participation of Haitian immigrants from Santiago.  Other shows offered a critique of recent art and political events, for instance Exposición Pendiente/Pending Exhibition 1973-201: Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros (2015) that recalled the 1973 exhibition of Mexican muralists cancelled two days before Pinochet’s coup d’état.

Exhibitions like (en)clave Masculino (2016) or Desacatos/Contempt. Art Practice of Women Artists (1835-1938) (2017) questioned the gender bias of institutional history and acquisition preferences. The latter presented art production by Chilean women artists and commented on their exclusion from official art education and mainstream art history.  In 2017 the museum designed a programme of ‘interventions’ in its permanent Sculpture Gallery celebrating International Women’s Day and International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.  Last September MNBA participated in the organization of the event Edit‑a‑thon aimed at raising the visibility of Chilean women artists in the local art scene by contributing their biographies to Wikipedia.


CMD:  What are the key 2018 challenges for the wider museum sector in Chile?

NK: Currently under review is a period of major change for the cultural sector in Chile.  In 2017 the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed into law the new Ministry of Cultures, Art and Patrimony (Ministerio de las Culturas, las Artes y el Patrimonio).  Our sector is now waiting to understand how this will affect the functioning, administration and image of all government run Chilean museums.  A likely impact is that it will end Dibam, founded in Chile in 1929 and one of oldest organizations of heritage preservation institutions in the world. Dibam (Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos) consists of 24 regional and specialized public museums, public libraries and archives across Chile and the National Museum of Fine Arts is one of the three national museums in Chile, next to the National Historic Museum (Museo Histórico Nacional) and the National Museum of Natural History (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural) in the organisation.   After almost nine decades of operating within DIBAM a new future in the planning.


Natalia Keller

Investigadora | Departamento de Colecciones

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes | José Miguel de la Barra 650, Santiago, Chile

MA Art History Utrecht University | Mobile +56 9 76709840