Intellectual Affairs

Puzzling Evidence

Historians are pondering the role of police museums in Latin America. Scott McLemee is watching the detectives.

May 30, 2012

The cover of the latest issue of Radical History Review shows a naked man, viewed from behind, standing astride the dividing line on a highway while balancing all his weight on one leg and holding his other limbs in the air at angles such that he might be aiming a semaphore, among other things, at the drivers of the two automobiles headed towards him on either side of the dotted line. (Another possibility is calisthenics.) The theme of the issue is “Calling the Law into Question,” and that’s certainly one way to go about it.

The cover catches the reader’s attention and the issue’s introduction explains what the editors plan to do with it. The assembled papers explore “a range of sites where confrontations and challenges to the law and prevailing social customs have taken place, whether on urban streets, in the archives, or in museums and courtrooms.” How? By “identifying protagonists outside academia who have challenged, or otherwise exposed, the ideological basis by which normative ideas of licit behavior have been constructed, enforced, and discursively supported.”

It demands a certain steeliness of will to keep reading beyond that point.  Lately the air has been full of challenges to the order of things (not to mention pepper spray) yet so many left-wing academics still write with sludgy diction in tones of somber flatulence. As Marx famously did not say: “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to render problematic the continuing enforcement of its discursive legitimation.” It makes you tired.

But one set of papers did jump out at me as a bit off-kilter, given the focus on subverting the order of things: a forum on police museums in Latin America. (If ever a combination of words seemed both innocuous and menacing, it would be “police museums in Latin America.”) The whole idea sounds Bolaño-esque -- conjuring up images of a hall full of lovingly prepared exhibits devoted to corruption and mayhem, where the museum-goer might become part of the next diorama on the tour.

Police museums "appeared with remarkable simultaneity on both sides of the Atlantic in the first two decades of the twentieth century,” writes Amy Chazkel, an associate professor of history at the City University of New York's Queens College and the Graduate Center, in her preface to the forum. They are “a product of popular interest in crime on the one hand and police reform on the other.” By now the phenomenon is even more international than Chazkel indicates. There is, for example, an International Police Museum in New Zealand, which doubles as a bed-and-breakfast. These institutions are exercises in community relations, as well as memorials to officers killed in the line of duty.

Challenging “normative ideas of licit behavior” is never part of the mission. About the museums in Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico discussed in the forum, Chazkel writes that they “share a common concern with controlling and sanitizing the image of the police while vigorously avoiding confronting the question of police criminality, corruption, and ineptitude.” (Nor, presumably, do they instruct civilians in the techniques mentioned by an East Texas sheriff I knew who said, “We’ve got ways to beat a guy that don’t leave any marks.”)

The museum in Havana that Alejandra Bronfman, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, discusses in her paper was inspired by the Sixth Congress in Criminal Anthropology, held in 1906, which called for government to “collect any confiscated objects that would be otherwise neglected or destroyed, and place them in a museum that would be very beneficial for the study of law and policing.” Beneficial, in the first place, to the police themselves, since one of the initial functions of the museum was as an instructional institution for trainees. In the words of one official account, students might go “without finding, in the course of everyday policing, typical examples of strangulation, poisoning, or other kinds of wounds,” so a collection of crime scene photos and instruments of mayhem would prepare them.

One consequence was the accumulating of clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, and ritual objects related to Afro-Cuban religious practices, which were prohibited. Learning to recognize such contraband items paid a double premium, since anyone found with them probably had other illegal proclivities. (Or so went the logic of the job, otherwise known as racial profiling.) The unintended result was that the museum became a repository for folkloric artifacts that remain of interest for reasons completely unrelated to why they were gathered in the first place.

While the Havana museum accumulated items to train a cop’s attention to signifiers of criminality (including at least one piece of human skin with a tattoo on it), Lila Caimari’s paper stresses how much the Buenos Aires museum serves as the institutional memory of the police force -- celebrating its history and professional culture, including the various uniforms and insignia. It also exhibits criminal paraphernalia (housebreaking tools, etc.) as any other police museum might. But according to Caimari, an independent scholar in Argentina, the institution’s development over time was conditioned by public contempt for the police role in repressing discontent.

The more far-sighted officials “urged for measures to ‘reconcile’ with the ‘people’ ” -- including a role for the museum in “attempting to build a public narrative that stressed modernity and professionalization, as well as police sensitivity regarding a number of social problems.”

A similar desire to court public opinion -- or at least to defy it -- seems to inform the venues covered by Robert M. Buffington’s account of what he calls “the curious genesis of the Mexican police museum.” Buffington, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, seems to be the only contributor to have engaged very deeply with the museological literature. The institutions he describes (two in Mexico City and one in Guadalajara) have been established only in recent years -- long after the epoch of professionalization in the early 20th century that shaped the others discussed in the forum.

“As desperate politicians and police administrators scramble to reduce recent damage done to the already dubious reputation of the police,” writes Buffington, “the sudden emergence of three police museums in Mexico’s two largest cities hardly seems a coincidence. Nor is it coincidental that all three are affiliated with the national and state-level police forces that are responsible for combating (yet accused of abetting) serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.”

But the tarnish-removal efforts of the Mexican museums are evidently quite different from their Argentine counterparts. One of them devotes exhibits to such pressing social problems as “Vampires and Werewolves,” “Serial Killers,” and “Murderous Women.” Another puts up display cases for the “gaudy trophies” and “narco-bling” confiscated from traffickers.

Buffington argues that the well-trained soldiers who serve as tour guides at one museum are engaged in a sort of performative exhibition of “the honorable, hard-working, self-disciplined ‘good’ macho who watches out for his family and fellows,” as opposed to “the dishonest, abusive, philandering, substance-abusing, self-destructive ‘bad’ macho who brings nothing but trouble down on anyone caught in his orbit.” And perhaps that is the key to whatever function the police museum plays. Still, the featuring of vampires and serial killers might suggest another symbolic matrix shaping the institution at this point in the 21st century: really bad exploitation TV. It's the same thrill of transgressing "normative ideas of licit behavior" vicariously, and with no consequences.


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