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Eighty-five years after the conflict that shaped modern Spain, prospects for the first national museum addressing the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship look increasingly distant amid polarised politics and a lack of consensus about how to remember the country’s history.

Right-wing regional governments are seeking to reverse the Socialist central government’s historical memory law, which passed in 2022 with the aim of bringing justice to the victims of the war and Franco’s rule. After winning an election in Aragón in August 2023, conservatives from the Partido Popular (PP) and the extreme right-wing Vox party succeeded in pushing through their “Concord Law” in February, overturning the historical memory legislation in this region of eastern Spain.

While Spain’s Constitutional Court has provisionally suspended Aragón’s Concord Law following an appeal by Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist government, the PP and Vox have in turn announced that they will appeal the suspension.

The triumph of the right casts doubt on the future direction of the planned National Museum of the Battle of Teruel and the Civil War, whose content will now be defined under the new PP-Vox leadership. The museum is already under construction in Teruel, the backdrop to a major battle in the war that led to Franco’s victory and the regime that lasted until 1975.

“We’ve taken a hit morally,” says Enrique Gómez, the president of the Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory of Aragón. In Gómez’s view, the project was already headed in the wrong direction before the election. In early 2023 it emerged that a memorial in the garden of the museum would include the names of those who died in battle without differentiating between those who fought for and against Franco.

In the wake of the dispute over the memorial, those leading the development of the museum, the historian Javier Paniagua and the museologist Joan Santacana, wrote in an open letter in February 2023 that they were no longer in contact with the government and had no information about the museum’s development.

“We have doubts that the future museum of Teruel will serve to confront a past that has conditioned and continues to condition Spanish society,” Paniagua and Santacana wrote.

‘Revisionist’ laws

Three UN human rights experts warned in a May letter that “concord” laws like Aragón’s could contravene Spain’s obligation to preserve historical violations of human rights because “they order the suppression of multiple entities, projects, websites and historical memory activities,” according to media reports. They said the laws amount to “revisionism”; the Concord Law in Aragón refers, for instance, to “Francoism” rather than “dictatorship”.

The Teruel museum’s construction is advancing slowly; The Directorate of Culture of Aragón confirmed to The Art Newspaper that the functions and the content of the museum are being defined but it could not provide details on the methodology or the timeline.

Meanwhile, the Spanish minister of territorial policy and democratic memory earlier this year announced that his ministry will cooperate with the Ministry of Culture to set up a national “centre-museum” dedicated to democratic memory in Madrid. The government’s Democratic Memory Law mandates the creation of such a centre to “safeguard the dignity of the victims of the war and the dictatorship with their participation.”

But sources close to the Ministry of Territorial Policy question the solidity of these plans, pointing to a lack of coordination between the two ministries. The Ministry of Territorial Policy did not respond to requests for information. The Ministry of Culture said only, “Such a museum has not been announced by the ministry.”

For now, Spain has a few local museums dedicated to the Civil War, though they are often underfunded. In April, for instance, the Museum of the Battle of Jarama, near Madrid, closed its doors after 25 years due to a dispute with neighbours and a lack of funding.

In Canada, a project led by two historians aims to close the gap digitally. Adrian Shubert of York University in Toronto and Antonio Cazorla-Sánchez of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario co-founded the Virtual Museum of the Spanish Civil War, a visual and narrative archive with nearly 300 entries. Funded mostly by Canadian institutions, it has notched up more than 100,000 visitors since launching in September 2022.

There’s no global museum of the Spanish Civil War out there and it seems there’s not going to be one

Antonio Cazorla-Sánchez, Trent University

“There’s no global museum of the Spanish Civil War out there and it seems there’s not going to be one,” Cazorla-Sanchez says. “So the objective is to bring to the public the very complex history of the Civil War, incorporating a lot of personal stories.”

Shubert says that though a national museum is not a prerequisite for the country to reckon with its legacy, “it would say something about the seriousness with which a society, represented by its government, is taking it.”

But as long as there is no consensus on how to address that legacy, it might be impossible for a museum to function independently from politics.

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