Episode 98

98. At the Panama Canal Museum, Ana Elizabeth González Creates a Global Connection Point


February 14th, 2022

13 mins 3 secs

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About this Episode

When Ana Elizabeth González was growing up in Panama, the history she learned about the Panama Canal in school told a narrow story about the engineering feat of the Canal’s construction by the United States. This public history reflected the politics of Panama and control over the Canal.

Today, González is executive Director of the Panama Canal Museum, and she’s determined to use the Canal and the struggles over its authority to tell a broader story about the history of Panama – one centered around Panama as a point of connection from pre-Colonial times to the present day.

In this episode, González describes the geographic destiny of the Isthmus of Panama, how America’s ownership of the Canal physically divided the country, and how her team is developing galleries covering Panama’s recent history.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 98. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

When Ana Elizabeth González was growing up in Panama, the history she learned in school about the Panama Canal told a narrow story.

Ana Elizabeth González: The history of the canal that was told here was told in a way that was very politically sensitive at the time. So it didn't want to ruffle any feathers.. it's mentioned in schools, but not in depth.

Up until 1979, the United States fully controlled the Panama Canal and a 5 mile zone on either side, and until 1999, the United States jointly controlled the Canal with Panama. The presence of the United States, and the politics of the Canal, meant that the safest story to tell was one that was mostly focused on the technological feat of building it.

Ana Elizabeth González: The history was very carefully constructed so that it praised the engineering feat of the United States, but it completely ignored the fact that Panama was home to people from 97 different countries to build this Canal, which causes such a diversity in our country.

Ana Elizabeth González is now Executive director of the Panama Canal Museum in Panama City, Panama.

Ana Elizabeth: Hello. My name is Ana Elizabeth González and I'm executive director of the Panama canal museum, El Museo Del Canal.

González became director in 2020, but the Panama Canal Museum itself opened in 1997, two years before control of the Canal was returned to Panama. The museum – a non-profit which is not government funded – was created out of a hope that, among all the changes, Pamana’s complex relationship to the Canal would not be forgotten.

Ana Elizabeth González: I was in school at the time, but, I remember it was, I think the then President of Panama and the Mayor and a lot of other people that created the board of trustees and I think it was the idea that this history of this struggle to gain our land and to find our sovereignty and the generational struggle that had been going on. There was a fear that it would have gotten lost in memory or forgotten. So I think that the museum back then was created to preserve and study and research everything surrounding the Canal history and promoting the education of what an impact it had.

So for González, the Panama Canal Museum is really a museum about Panama.

Ana Elizabeth González: I think people come with the preconception that the museum is just going to be about how the Canal works and how the locks open fill with water. And we don't really have that in-depth here. That's why the Canal has a visitor center that explains how it works in terms of technology and engineering. But it's something we just brush over here because we deep dive into the history of Panama as a point of connection. And as this route that changed the world.

The first gallery of the museum begins long before the Canal and highlights the unique features of Panama’s geography: a small isthmus that’s both the only way to travel between the North and South American continents by land and also the narrowest land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Ana Elizabeth González: We've been a trade route or over a route of connection. Ever since Panama – well, the territory sort of resurfaced from, from the oceans, because we were always a bridge between north and south America for animal species and then indigenous peoples. So we've always sort of been a point of trade and contact both culturally and commercially. You enter, the first exhibition space, which is the sort of emergence of Panama as a land in this sort of Omni globe that we have, and you see how it connects both landmasses of North and South America. And you go through the exhibition towards the pre-colonial living traditions, and what Panama was like before the Spanish colonization, then the importance of Panama as part of the Spanish crown and monarchy until 1821.

After three hundred years as part of the Spanish monarchy, the isthmus’s geography started to look even more useful to outside interests during the 19th century, as global trade started to pick up. Here, goods and passengers could bypass a much longer and much more dangerous journey around the Strait of Magellan on the southern tip of South America. In 1855, a railway was built across the Isthmus, facilitating the movement of people and goods in time for a wave of the California gold rush.

Ana Elizabeth González: And then in 1881, if I'm correct, the French after the success of the Suez Canal, the French chose to build a canal through Panama. Unfortunately, due to yellow fever and other diseases and badly managed funds, the enterprise did not succeed, but it was bought from the French by the United States through the treaty of, Hay–Bunau-Varilla, which we signed upon getting our independence as a country.

The 1903 treaty of Hay–Bunau-Varilla granted the United States complete ownership over a 50 mile long slice of land that was to be the Canal. In the gallery, visitors walk through a hallway that’s completely covered in words from that treaty. Powerful words like “perpetuity” and “authority” look down on them.

Ana Elizabeth González: The United States had rights for… well for forever it wasn't even a question of whether or not they owned it. They owned the land where it was going to be built and the land where they had to operate and the land where they had to create their offices and their ports. Back then the country was completely divided, through a gap that was considered the canal zone. And that was United States territory and Panimanians were not free to wander into it, and it did separate the country in a massive way. And that treaty, which no Panamanian negotiated or signed, was actually the seed of our struggle with international relations during the whole 20th century until the CanalI was transferred back to Panama in 1999.

But first the massive task of actually constructing the Canal through that slice of land. The project required enormous numbers of people, and Canal administrators tried to entice workers from all over the world to take part in the project – yet another way that this isthmus was at the forefront of a more globalized world.

Ana Elizabeth González: We had people obviously from the Caribbean, we had people from Europe. We had people from Asia. So there's a big mix and such a big diversity that came with the construction of the Canal.And many of them remained in the country after the Canal was built and they made their life here, but what is also not known is the amount of racism and discrimination that these people faced. Because in order to work in the Panama Canal construction, you were assigned either a gold roll or a silver roll.

So the payroll was either you were paid in American gold or in Panamanian silver and the American gold was reserved for white Americans. And sometimes there were some exceptions with some Europeans, but the remainder of the population whether you were Asian, Caribbean, European, or even Panamanian, you were paid in Panamanian silver. The living standards for silver roll were appalling. The law even, because I'm assuming some of it was important from the Jim Crow laws at the time, they had segregated entrances for silver roll and gold roll. The schools were segregated. And this is a history that not many people in Panama or elsewhere know. And I think a lot of that ripples into certain racial tendencies and racism that permeates through our society today.

After taking people through the construction of the Canal, the museum’s exhibits end abruptly in 1964, with an event known as Martyrs' Day in Panama.

Ana Elizabeth González: And it ends in 1964 because we had a very significant moment in history at the time where students from a high school in Panama peacefully protested with their flag towards the Canal Zone. And there was a scuffle, there were a lot of tensions and in the end, many of the students died, shot by Canal Zone police, or otherwise, and the flag was torn. And at that moment, Panama became the first country to break diplomatic relations with the United States. And we still commemorate that day as the day of the Martyrs' that day. And that was a turning point in the negotiations of a new treaty. For the Canal and that's where we are at the moment, because the next exhibition rooms are completely empty at the moment. We're continuing to renovation plans for those.

González and her team are developing the galleries that feature the rest of the story, up until the present day – this includes the Torrijos–Carter Treaties in 1977 which defined the handover of the Canal at the end of the 20th century, and the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. When the new galleries open, it will be the first time much of this history has been presented in a Panamanian museum.

Ana Elizabeth González: Yeah, it's our next challenge. Many people may not know this, in 1968 we had a coup d'état. the government was deposed and we had a military regime and it's a history that not many Panimanians talk about till this day. There's still a lot of sensibilities I think that could be hurt, from it because there are still people around that were part of both the military regime and families of the victims it disappeared. But it was a big part of our history and it was a big part of the negotiations for the canal because, general Omar Torrijos who signed the Canal treaty with president Carter from the United States was in fact that a dictator and not many, not everybody agrees on that terminology, but, he eliminated political parties. He eliminated media that was not government controlled. We had another dictator until 89 when the United States following a clause from the treaty from 1903, and also 77, which said, they can invade Panama at any point where they, when they think that Canal is being endangered, invaded the country to a lot of human losses, but managed to successfully arrest our dictator.

All of that is a very difficult history to share. And I think that's why maybe in 97 when the museum was created. It was still too soon. But it's something that we're definitely going to tell now. And I think it's going to be a really important dialogue with the people's Panama to remember maybe parts of history that are hurtful to remember, maybe embarrassing to remember, but that need to be remembered in order not to be repeated. So that's our next step.

González says that the new galleries featuring recent history will be open in September 2022. In the century since the Canal was built, the globe has only become more connected – and the Canal remains the world’s biggest trade route. González is sure that Panama’s place as a global point of connection will only grow – and wants to make sure there’s a museum that tells that story.

Ana Elizabeth González: I think it's important for people to know the Canal is not just a recent history. To know that Panama has been a link between peoples and. cultures and points of trade since we've existed is quite important. We've been geographically blessed and such a small country plays such a big impact in the world that it's an honor for me to direct the museum that tells that story.

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For a full transcript of this episode, as well as show notes and links, visit museumarchipelago.com. Thanks for listening. And next time, bring a friend.