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El Museo de los Tuneles, (Museum of Tunnels) is located in Barracas, a neighbourhood in the south of Buenos Aires, well off the beaten track for tourists. We are assured, my colleague and I, that we are the first “extranjeros” to step foot in the tunnels. The museum is regularly visited by history buffs and crowds of children on school trips, but all from Argentina.
During the 18-19th century, the neigbourhood, Barracas, close to the harbour, was the place all the cotton, leather and food reserves were stocked. It was often the first shelter for immigrants, who represented about 50 % of the population of Buenos Aires at this time.
The museum is close to the church Santa Felicitas, a beautiful 19th century neo-gothic building, linked to the museum that, combined, span the total length of the block. Ellen Hendi, one of the museum co-ordinators (and volunteers) meets us in the corner of the Azara and Pinzón streets. “El museo de los tuneles” is situated in the basement of a private school, an institution that lends the place to the association which handles visits today: The Independent Association for Promotion of the Historical Patrimony.
At first sight, the place looks as though it is being renovated, with new installations, not really what is expected from such a historical museum. The guide, Hendi, explains that even if the association (GIPP) does not make money, renovations are 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 go through a second door, and the light fades. The atmosphere here is more intimate. We discover the museum: a maze of corridors in which we can see the foundations of the brick-made building and smell the ambient dampness.
First door on the right is the foreigners’ room. Here we find ancient leather and wooden mallets forgotten by immigrants, alongside other every day objects like hats, and an old loom. “Most of the things here were left by immigrants or lent,” explains Hendi, pointing out a modern mosaïque made by a local artist. Pictures of immigrants line the wall, waves of new arrivals most likely in the mid-19th century, coming mostly from Italy, Spain, and France.
In fact, we learn that these tunnels were used as a refugee camp for the rapidly-growing immigrant population at the end of the 19th century, many of whom arrived in Argentina with nothing and lived in a deplorable condition. (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 dozens of different rooms, each one with its own atmosphere, and Hendi has an inexhaustible knowledge about the place. We pass a colonial-style bathroom – “easily floodable, because we are several metres below the sea”. Then we enter a larger room lined with archaeological finds, from old, unidentified buildings.
Hendi explains that at the beginning of the renovation of the tunnels, they found a huge number of skulls and bones in a remote part. “Probably due to the church, which is not that far, maybe a crypt,” she adds. Then we enter a room dedicated to a famous Argentine cook, Doña Petrona, who promoted gas cooking at the beginning of the city’s industrialisation.
The history of the tunnels is intimately linked to the school above it and the nearby Santa Felicitas church, which itself has a special story.
In 1870, a young girl, Felicitas Guerrero, who married a 51-year-old rich man, became a widow with four children. She decided to marry another man one year later, but has a crowd of pretenders following her. One of them, outraged at being rejected, kills her with one bullet in the back. She was 25 years-old. The same year, her parents, who inherited her wealth, decide to build a church in her name.
In the inner-courtyard of the church there is 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” (so no religious ceremonies can be celebrated in it). Its organ and stained-glass windows were beautifully made in Bordeaux, France. This place was used some time ago by a theatre troupe to train and play, but it was closed because the floor, which is well-worn, could give way under the weight of an unlucky guest.
Visitors today can have a coffee in the colorful and warm church light, which can be as unsettling as it is enjoyable.
For museum lovers, the Museo de Tuneles offers a step into traditional Buenos Aires culture, providing an interesting and unconventional insight into the city’s fascinating history.
The Museo de Tuneles, Pinzón 1480; 4303-2755; open on the last weekend of the month; $15. For more information, visit the website.