El Museo de los Tuneles, (Museum of Tunnels) in Barracas, in southern Buenos Aires, in an area outside of the standard tourist trail. Upon entering, my friend and I were told that we are the first “extranjeros” to set foot inside the tunnels. The museum´s regular visitors include Argentinian history buffs and schoolchildren on field trips.
During the 18-19th century, the neighborhood Barracas, near the harbor, was where the cotton, leather and food reserves were stored. It was often the first stop for immigrants, who comprised about half of the population of Buenos Aires at that time.
The museum is attached to the the Santa Felicitas church, a beautiful 19th century neo-gothic building, which with the museum span the entire length of the block. Ellen Hendi, one of the coordinators of the museum met us at the corner of Azara and Pinzón streets. “El museo de los tuneles” in located in the basement of a private school, an institution that lends the locale to the association that handles visitors today: The Independent Association for Promotion of the Historical Patrimony.
Upon first glance, the place looks as if it is in the midst of being renovated, which is not what you´d expect to find at a historical museum. Our guide, Hendi, explains that if the association (GIPP) does not make money, renovations are still possible. “We do not have subventions from the nation, nor from the city, nor from the church – visitors only give what they want to help us,” she says.
We enter a second door and the light dims, creating a more intimate atmosphere. We see that the museum consists of a maze of corridors in which we can see the brick foundation of the building and smell dampness.
The first door to our right is the foreigners’ room. Here we see ancient leather and wooden mallets forgotten by immigrants, beside various everyday objects like hats and an old loom. “Most of the things here were left by immigrants or lent,” explains Hendi, as she points out locally made modern mosaïque. Along the walls are pictures of immigrants who arrived mainly in the mid-19th century from Italy, Spain, and France.
We are told that these tunnels were used to house refugees from the rapidly-growing immigrant population at the end of the 19th century, many of whom arrived in Argentina with nothing, and lived in squalor. (In 1871, a yellow fever outbreak killed around 8% of the Buenos Aires population, hitting the southern part of the city especially hard).
There are many different rooms, each of which has its own atmosphere, and Hendi knows everything about the place. We pass a colonial-style bathroom – “easily floodable, because we are several metres below the sea”. Hendi explains that when the began to renovate the tunnels, they uncovered a huge number of skulls and bones which they attribute to a crypt of the church. She leads us to a room entirely dedicated to famous Argentine cook, Doña Petrona, a proponent of cooking with gas during the city´s initial industrialization period.
The tunnels history is very much linked with the school above it and the nearby Santa Felicitas church, which has its own unique story. In 1870, a young girl, Felicitas Guerrero, who married a rich 51 year old man, became a widow with four children. She remarried the following year, but has a crowd of admirers prior to doing so. One of these men, who was disgruntled due to being rejected, shot her in the back and killed her. She was 25 years-old. Her parents, who inherited her wealth, erected a church in her name.
The inner-courtyard of the church houses a 1898 replica of the Lourdes’ (France) cave, protected by a 3-metre statue of Christ. And on the second floor of the school is a “Notre Dame de Lourdes” church replica (1893), which is not “sacred” (meaning that religious ceremonies cannot take place there.) The church´s organ and stained-glass windows were beautifully constructed in Bordeaux, France. In the past a theatre troupe used the building to train and play, but had to stop due to the floor, which could give way under the weight of an unlucky guest.
For museum lovers, the Museo de Tuneles offers insight into the culture of Buenos Aires and is highly recommended.