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ARGENTINA
Saint or sinner?
Dafne Sabanes Plou
7/8/2003
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The Eva Perón Museum exhibits both sides of this controversial figure.

It may seem strange that a museum exhibition dedicated to a historical figure would begin with scenes of a funeral. But the impact is stunning. Projected onto a large screen that seems to wrap around the entire room are images of the 1952 funeral procession that accompanied the embalmed corpse of Eva Perón from Congress to its resting place in the headquarters of the General Confederation of Workers.

The splendor of the event, the solemnity that surrounded the transfer of the coffin, the thousands of floral bouquets that people piled at the entrance to the Congress building and the outpouring of emotion that accompanied the ceremony are ample evidence that within hours of her death Evita was already a myth.

The museum administrators deftly balance reality and myth in all the exhibits, tiptoeing the fine line between history and magic that marks the life and career of a woman who was Argentina’s first lady from 1946-1952.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the museum — founded in 2000 and inaugurated last July 26, the 50th anniversary of Evita’s death — is its location. Just a little more than a block away from the zoo and only 200 meters from the Botanical Gardens of Buenos Aires, the museum is housed in a stylish and luxurious mansion that belonged to a wealthy family. It later became part of the Evita Foundation, created during the first government of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1952) to carry on the government’s social action work.

At that time, the neighborhood, one of the wealthiest and elitist of Buenos Aires, must not have been happy to hear that the mansion was going to become the "Luisa Comel" Transit Shelter — named in memory of a dedicated nurse — to house poor mothers who traveled with their children from the country’s interior to have them treated at the nearby Children’s Hospital.

"Evita honored the dignity of poor mothers by providing them with all the comforts of the big city," said architect Cristina Álvarez Rodríguez, who is Eva Perón’s grandniece and honorary president of the Eva Perón National Institute of Historical Investigations, the entity responsible for the museum.

The mansion’s 2,000 square meters, adorned with marble, wood paneling, molded plaster ceilings and an Andalusian patio with tiles especially imported from Spain by the original owners, reflects an era when Argentine high society flaunted its fortunes. The large rooms could house dozens of women with their children, and photographs show many of them enjoying the place’s comforts.

Under the management of curator Gabriel Miremont, the museum exhibits photographs, artifacts and souvenirs of Evita’s life, from her childhood and adolescence in the Buenos Aires countryside to her arrival in the capital, where she joined the cast of one of the popular radio melodramas of the time, landing the part of a heroine. Her beauty and indomitable character made her a regular fixture in magazines that reported on the entertainment world, in which radio actors and actresses occupied a favored place.

Among the more notable of Evita’s personal items that form part of the museum’s collection are jewels and clothing from her famous wardrobe fashioned by such renowned designers as Paco Jamandreu and Christian Dior. The suits, dresses, hats and shoes are perfectly preserved on life-size mannequins and are accompanied by pictures of Evita wearing them.

Interest in the Evita Musuem continues to grow because those in charge have allowed room for the controversy that dogged the woman during her public life. Adored by her followers, despised by the upper class and the old rulers of Argentina, part of the myth are the insulting anecdotes, information and rumors that aimed to smear her image. Side-by-side with publications that praise her and her own controversial book Evita: In My Own Words (La razón de mi vida), which was burned during the military coup that toppled Perón’s second government (1952-55), are copies of The Black Book (El Libro Negro) and The Woman with the Whip (La Mujer del Látigo), among other writings, in which anti-Peronists rail against the person whom many considered "the standard-bearer of the little people."

There is also a statue of Eva Perón, the face destroyed by vandalism and hatred, a product of demonstrations backing the military coup. At that time, several monuments and sculptures of Peronist leaders were destroyed. Evita’s silent sculpture is a laconic witness to the intolerance and political violence that reigned in the country for many years, when the names of Eva and Juan Domingo Perón could not be spoken in public.

"We hope that people who visit the museum go away with an image of Eva as part of a historical process," said Álvarez Rodríguez. "We would like the people who lived at her time, as well as those who didn’t, to be able to reconstruct it with images, artifacts, news clippings and writings."

 

 


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