The Maritime and Prison Museum was originally constructed in the late 19th century as a prison (by prisoners). It consists of 5 two-story wings built onto a central hub. The prison became the most southerly situated jail in the world and was where Buenos Aires sent prisoners it didn’t want to house locally — sort of like the English sending prisoners to Australia.
The prison had 380 cells which housed up to 800 inmates ranging from political prisoners to murderers. In some ways the prison was reformative, prisoners receiving a basic education and pay for work performed (which they could take with them when — or if — they ever left). The prison ran various shops that served the needs of the community including shoemaking, blacksmithing and medical services.
After several decades the prison was closed, being abandoned in 1947. The building was acquired by the Navy, and a Naval Base was installed adjoining it. The prison was granted National Historical Monument status by the Argentinian government in 1997.
Your visit begins outside of the prison building, where there are several interesting displays including the decaying remains of the cutter “Tomasito”, used to navigate the Beagle Channel by a local family. There’s an old “Traction Engine” — a steam boiler — used to power saw blades for lumber production in nearby forests. The engine, while heavy and bulky, could be pulled by oxen to where it was needed.
There is even a train on the museum grounds, the last remnant of the famous “prisoners train” that used to take convicts into the hills for hard labor like logging, road building and such.
Today the prison is open too all, for a modest admission fee, and makes for an interesting visit. Your visit begins with a stop at the Naval section, featuring some highlights of the area’s ties to the ocean including charts and maps, but with displays like canoes made by natives to explore the islands of Tierra del Fuego, and a models of a several ships, including this copy of the famous vessel, the Beagle, aboard which Charles Darwin traveled.
I found my visit to the prison section far more intriguing than the Naval section. The prison comprises the largest space and you can walk its cells and halls, taking in the oppressive damp, cold and rather dreary atmosphere. It would have been most unpleasant to live here. A few of the cells are furnished as they were when inmates lived here, but several contain exhibits like mannequins, posters and displays.
The museum also has a gift shop and there is a small Maritime Art Gallery. All and all, an interesting stop worth a few hours of your time.
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