Museo Antártico Ushuaia Dr. José María Sobral


Cultural Heritage

This section deals with research and museological tasks aiming at keeping alive the memory of Argentine Antarctic activities or those in which Argentina was involved.

Orkneys Base: The Oldest in the Continent.

With very little means, and basically the willpower of institutions and staff involved, a lot has been achieved. Maybe not as much as is desirable, but we can certainly feel proud that many countries around the world praise our achievements and many have followed our example. In many cases, these countries have surpassed Argentine achievements, since they rely on significant funding and also because these countries have a long-standing experience and a tradition in safeguarding identity. By means of fund raising and associations of friends, projects are developed – signs posted for places to be kept and remembered, archaeological and historical rescue, and the recovery of stations such as Scott’s shelter and Port Lockroy station (in charge of the Antarctic Heritage Trust from the U.K.).

Apart from funding projects, these countries’ officials encourage this kind of activities maybe because, when children, it was usual that their education included visiting museums. Then, they are far from hindering these activities, which is a very different attitude from that of some local officials who, disregarding consequences, do not facilitate projects. On many occasions, they interpret “reserve” or “natural protected area” implies a place where nothing should be done and where others should not be allowed to do nothing. And this turns them into true destroyers of cultural heritage and memory, thus debuilding identity. It is not clear if they act out of arrogance or ignorance; it would be a pity if it was for the two reasons.
But this compilation of projects will show how much is done and how much can be done with very little resources and lots of willpower from experts, officials, and institutions. Few people know that Argentina maintains museums in Antarctica and that Antarctic exhibits, supported by the Argentine Antarctic Institute and the National Naval Museum, together with the Argentine Navy, allow the rescuing of memory. We should be very grateful to these cultural agents and future generations will also be.

Lic. Carlos Pedro Vairo

Director of the Maritime and Prison Museum of Ushuaia
President of the Argentine Museum Directors Association (Asociación de Directores de Museos de la República Argentina)


With a degree in Business Administration, another in Museology and also an expert in Maritime Anthropology, Carlos Pedro Vairo has worked in the creation of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia since 1989. His and his team’s extraordinary work has given the institution international renown. Nobody was able to evoke the memory of Ushuaia and its indissoluble relation with the sea as they did.

(Extract from the newspaper Tiempo Fueguino, Special Anniversary Edition /1987 – August, 15 – 2007)

Ushuaia has wonderful landscapes, snow-capped mountains, almost impenetrable forests, and some small valleys for winter sports. But, above all, it has a vast sea.

A sea that tells us stories about shipwrecks and old sailors’ feats, seamen who conducted incredible rescues aboard small vessels amid violent storms.

However, many years ago, when Carlos Pedro Vairo arrived for the first time, Ushuaia lacked “as it still lacks,” according to what Vairo states, “a real sea culture.”

“As it was a town built by the sea, I thought its people used to go on fishing tours and would tell countless stories,” which only the sea can inspire.

“However, there was only one shop where fish and some seafood could be bought, and one hawker who yelled at the top of his voice while pushing his cart.”

In 1982, the present Director of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia —located in the former Military Prison and Jail for Reoffenders— arrived in the town to take a course on radars, and “was surprised by the lack of sea tradition.”

“The port was active, but operations were limited. The vessels entering the port at that time belonged to the Argentine Navy, especially Naval Transports, and to the Argentine Coastguard. The rest of them were small sailboats that belonged to the first Fuegian families, such as Padín, Beban, and Figuelli,” Vairo explains.

With a degree in Business Administration, another in Museology and also an expert in Maritime Anthropology, Carlos Pedro Vairo took courses in Denmark, Norway and Spain, among others. His studies allowed him to have an expert’s point of view on the vessels, depending on the society they belong to. Examples of these vessels are the wickerwork and leather boats he studied in La Coruña in order to compare them with the bark canoes built by the primitive native Yamanas.

Thus, along with a group of friends, he decided to return in 1989 to start reconstructing different boats to scale with a view to exhibiting them in a place where the community of Ushuaia, as well as the very few tourists who then visited the place, could see them.

At that time, they could not guess the building where the Prison used to be would be transferred to them. The building had been abandoned in 1977 and was in very bad conditions — mostly flooded and destroyed, with no power or natural gas supply.

Although two weekly visits were offered in the afternoon for those who wanted to visit the former Prison of Ushuaia —during which the Historic Pavilion and the Central Hall were shown—, the community was not interested in preserving the building. The reason for this was that “once the prison was closed, the inhabitants thought the curse was over, as well as their bad memories of growing up in a town where prisoners walked out in the streets and of an enormous gray building —later, in 1970, it walls were painted yellow and its roof was painted red by the Argentine Navy, and these are its present colors— containing stories of pain and suffering.”

“The intention of reconstructing or saving part of the building and the need to have a Maritime Museum led us to join with a group of friends, carry out archaeological and historic research, and gather the necessary material that allowed us to open the current Maritime Museum in March, 1995,” the director recalls.

At first, the museum was made up of an entrance hall and the first six cells of Pavilion IV. The place “was visited by 200 people during the first summer, between January and February.”

Currently, 80,000 people visit the former Prison every year, including schools organizing non-formal educational activities, foreign tourists attracted by naval models, and Argentinians who want to learn the history of the prison and its famous prisoners.

Today, the whole building is fitted out for the Museum and holds maritime and Antarctic exhibitions, offers guided tours to learn the history of the Prison. It also lodges an art gallery where painting and drawing workshops can be attended, and a special room for Isla de los Estados (Staten Land), which complements it with regional history. It is worth mentioning that the exhibitions are adapted according to the public, depending on the visitors’ nationality and age. For this purpose, each area has specialized consultants who work together with other areas.

“When I arrived in the town —says Carlos Vairo—, the society was made up of a rare mixture of Spanish, Italian and Croatian customs, which made it even more colorful. I remember I was once invited to eat Italian pasta, but the sauce had been prepared with beet.” These are particular facts that stand out from the rest of the Argentine history. “Here, instead of talking about San Martín, people talked about Luis Piedra Buena or other seafarers.”

The Museum has a team made up of about twenty men and women, as well as another team located in Buenos Aires, which carries out historical research and takes care of the models, done to a scale of 1:100.


Carlos Pedro Vairo

  • Director of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia
  • 53 years old
  • Born in Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires
  • He visited Ushuaia for the first time in 1982.

In the First Person
Protecting Identity

I arrived in Ushuaia in 1982, when I first visited it before starting to settle. It could be said I met it when it was a small town, where the streets did not reach beyond Magellan. The town grew in a disorderly manner, due to the large influx of people from different places, with different customs and identities.

During that dramatic growth, the essence of primitive Ushuaia, where newly arrived people were called “the ones from the north” and were thought to come to change a lifestyle, was lost. Today, I believe we feel the same way.

Ushuaia is no longer the town we knew. The constant waves of people seeking a better future and the building progress of the town resulted in the loss of much of our essence. Apart from that, when the pioneers left the place, many traditional customs were also gone, such as the carefully kept gardens and orchards, and the strange mixture of Spanish dishes, with Croatian and Italian details and Chilean and other Spanish American influences.

Because of this reason, I think it is very important —and to some extent, it is the responsibility of the mass media— to be committed and help in order to understand the heritage of this place, either tangible or intangible. It is natural for those who arrive and start becoming part of the society to bring the identity of their ancestors. However, if they were to incorporate the identity of the place, it would also be beneficial.

As the Director of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia, I work along with a team belonging to such institution to promote the architectural heritage, the intangible heritage and the historic monuments.

Today, we still lack a maritime culture, and this was demonstrated during a literary contest held in 2002 for students belonging to primary schools. Its subject matter was “The Man and the Sea.” Only one work considered the Beagle Channel to be part of the sea. All contestants gave abstract examples of the sea or narrated stories about places they knew only because they passed by, when returning to their places of origin. The only story that mentioned the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn was the one written by the granddaughter of one of the pioneers, Vicente Padín, who was a great sailor and a very good person.

We need to keep working so that the provincial capital of Tierra del Fuego becomes the best reflection of the southernmost sea in the world. And that is everyone’s responsibility.

Carlos Pedro Vairo
Director of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia
February, 2007