Argentines bank on a good time at new debt museum

Family outings may get a whole lot wonkier when the world's first exhibit devoted to national debt opens in October

For most museum-goers, a stroll through the gallery means traveling with Monet to the banks of Giverny's lily ponds, or back in time to ancient pyramids.

But this fall, visitors to Argentina's newest museum won't see Impressionist canvases or primitive artifacts. Instead, they'll be dazzled by a multimedia display including decades-old bond contracts and other debt relics.

"Kids, no trip to the beach today - we're off to the debt museum!"

That's right, a year and a half after declaring the largest ever default in history, Argentina is preparing to open the world's first museum dedicated to a country's national debt.

Argentina has always had trouble paying the bills - from its first default in 1827, shortly after independence from Spain, to 2001, when, amid rioting and political chaos, the country suspended payment on a $142 billion mountain of debt.

Now, creators of Argentina's Museum of Foreign Debt, opening in October, have found an unlikely way to educate the public about - and perhaps curb - Argentina's culture of credit and its negative impact on what was once South America's shining star.

"I will definitely be going," says Oscar Virgimillo during a trip to the Malba Museum, home to one of the foremost collections of Latin American art. "This debt question is central to understanding Argentina, unlike other countries. But its history is not widely known here, so the museum is a good idea."

Argentina has defaulted on debt payments five times in its history. Following the first default in 1827, there were two more in the 19th century. The failure to repay a loan in 1890 caused a panic in London, then the world's financial capital. The country defaulted again in 1982, caught in the fallout from Mexico's debt crisis. And the government is still looking for a way to restart payments from its 2001 default.

The idea for this unique museum grew out of discussions among - surprise ! - a group of economists. In the wake of the 2001 default, the editorial team of the newspaper La Gaceta de Economicas decided to use a monthly supplement to raise awareness about the issues and implications arising from the country's indebtedness. But they concluded that the convoluted nature of the material required a livelier, interactive approach.

"We hope ordinary members of the public who visit the museum will leave with a better understanding of what can be a very complex and technical subject," says director Simon Pristupin.

The new museum will sit in two rooms of an elegant Georgian-style building here that houses the Economic Sciences department of the University of Buenos Aires.

Visitors will follow a timeline detailing Argentina's tortuous relationship with debt and its impact on development. Beside old photos and prints from crises past will sit new cartoons of key personalities and events. For the especially wonky visitor, there will be copies of bond contracts.

A video library will screen footage like the 2001 speech when President Rodriguez Saa stated: "We are going to take the bull by the horns. I announce that the Argentine state will suspend payments on the foreign debt."

Eventually, the curators plan to spice things up with a different theme every six months, allowing hard-core red-ink revelers to expand their grasp of the subject with each visit. They also plan to take the exhibition on the road.

The museum's subject matter has caused heated debate. Leftists and economic nationalists at home, and antiglobalization protesters abroad, blame the crippling burden of debt payments for increased poverty. In May, Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, declared: "We cannot pay the debt at the cost of sentencing Argentines to hunger and exclusion," warning foreign creditors that "they will only be paid if Argentina is doing well."

But the country's center-right economists and politicians say the debt stems from reckless state spending. They worry failure to honor obligations risks isolating Argentina from the world's financial system and future development. The museum aims to be politically neutral.

Currently, there's no public money to fund the museum, but the city government and national museum are consulting on the project. The museum is relying on donations and volunteers.

In its own way, the museum is a personal response to Argentina's crisis. "I have not volunteered for the soup kitchens," says Mr. Pristupin. "But hopefully this museum can help to explain why there is hunger in Argentina today."

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