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textile tunic from Tiahuanaco

R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J. Archeological Museum

By Manuel Arturo Torres Fernandez de la Vega, director, Museo Arqueológico RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ - San Pedro de Atacama, Universidad Católica del Norte (translated and abridged by Yadin Larochette)

This article is written in both English and Spanish.


The History of the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J. Archeological Museum

Located in the Antofagasta region, the remote town of San Pedro de Atacama sits within the northeast margin of the salt flats of Atacama about 96 km (60 miles) southwest of the city of Calama. At 2,436 meters (7,992 feet) above sea level, San Pedro de Atacama is home to the Archeological Research Institute and the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J. Archeological Museum, a dependent entity of the Universidad Católica del Norte (Northern Catholic University).


The museum is recognized for its collections, a result of the work conducted by R.P. Gustavo Le Paige, a Belgian priest who arrived in Chile in 1952 and settled in San Pedro de Atacama in 1955. Combining his work as an archeologist, with his responsibilities to the local parish, he spent over 20 years of his life establishing one of the largest collections in South America. This collected heritage represents an uninterrupted cultural lineage of human occupation in the salt flats of Atacama, the most arid desert on the planet, and speaks to the tremendous fortitude of the Atacaman people.


The collections have managed to live on in spite of the ravages of time, thanks to a desert environment that allowed for the preservation of artifacts that, in other conditions, would have been impossible. The collections are composed of both organic and inorganic materials such as textiles, ceramics and wood, metal, stone, and bone artifacts.


Background on the Project

The existing museum building lacked the required infrastructure for the housing and appropriate protection of the collections, and plans for a new building were made.  To protect the collections during construction, it was necessary to move the artifacts to a temporary, yet secure, storage facility specifically designed and built for this purpose. The arduous process of moving the collections to the new depository was a success thanks to the coordination of all the different entities involved, and all the actors committed to the project. Taking into consideration the volume of material that was transferred and the context within which it all occurred, the move was quite a unique experience.


The museum is a symbolic entity in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, not only for the local collective imagination, but also as a place of interest for the national and foreign visitor. Its temporary closure was disconcerting to the public, inspiring numerous questions about alternative ways to maintain public access to the area’s cultural heritage during the museum’s temporary closure. In response, and as a way to implement one of the core strategies prioritized by the institution, the museum’s administration proposed to develop an exhibition space within the temporary storage facility. This initiative would grant the public’s request by allowing continuity of access to selected works, simultaneously underscoring their cultural value.


The Archeological Storage Museum


Visible Exhibition Storage Space Museo Arqueológico RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ - San Pedro de Atacama
Remote Visible Exhibition Storage Space for Museo Arqueológico RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ – San Pedro de Atacama


The Archeological Storage Museum (Deposito Arqueológico Museable/ DAM) established an exhibition space quite different from a traditional museum, since the space was originally conceived with the sole objective of storing the collections. It’s worth noting that the space not only makes reference to the collections housed within, but also to the associated storage materials and methods used for their preservation and protection. Before the project was set in motion, all of the technical variables associated with allowing the public access to the temporary space were thoroughly reviewed, and necessary steps to mitigate risks of damage were implemented[1].


Since the space has limited capacity for visitors, public access is gradual and controlled. An established route further minimizes incidences where visitors could jeopardize the stability of the artifacts on display. The exhibit allows visitors to not only value the existing collections, but also engages the visitor in the wider context of conservation, preservation and protection of cultural heritage.


An Object’s Relevance 


Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”
Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”


Detail of Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”.
Detail of Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”.



Within this exhibit space, one of the works that grabs the visitors’ attention and sparks the most interest is a textile tunic from Tiahuanaco, a culture that evolved from 1580 BC to 1187 AD in what is today Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Chile.


This garment is from a funerary bundle excavated by Le Paige in 1975. The bundle is attributed to a body that was mummified by natural desiccation found at a depth of 40 cm (15 ¾ in.) in a fetal position, looking east of the locality, in a tomb in the central zone of the Coyo cemetery[2] .  The climatic conditions that persist in this arid desert allowed the preservation of all the materials, offering invaluable evidence of the man’s life and times.


This textile is unique for its type; there is no other example in existence in such good condition. The piece is of exceptional beauty reflecting a confluence of visual and tactile qualities. Fine, and technically complicated, the weaving is made with alpaca yarns that offer a dense and, at the same time soft, surface. Its iconography and quality suggest it’s Tiahuanacan but foreign to the Atacama region. It has been suggested that it was probably created to be worn on special occasions by someone of great importance.


As we admire this dazzling work, it’s worth noting that in the Andean region the most beautiful textiles were destined as offerings to the Gods, and were burned at the altars. Consequently, weavings did not just function as every day wear, but they also, possibly due to the arduous dedication and time involved in their production, acquired the necessary dignity to serve as sacrifice.


Drawing of display case to house a Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”
Drawing of display case to house a Pre-Columbian textile “Túnica Tiwanaku”


textile tunic from Tiahuanaco
Textile tunic of the Tiahuanaco on display at the remote San Pedro de Atacama Archeological Storage Museum. Photo courtesy of Museo Arqueológico RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ – San Pedro de Atacama, Universidad Católica del Norte.


Due to the fragility of this valuable textile, its public display would only be possible under strict preservation standards to protect its stability. These stipulations have been achieved thanks to a generous donation of Optium Museum Acrylic® provided by Tru Vue, Inc., under the auspices of SurPatrimonia Limited, authorized distributors of Tru Vue products in Chile.


Optium Museum Acrylic® is a specially manufactured glazing with anti-reflective coatings, 99% UV protection, abrasion resistance, and anti-static properties. This glazing provides an exceptionally clear view of the object, and is trusted by museums the world over to protect delicate artworks such as the Tiahuanaco textile tunic. The glazing was transported from the Tru Vue plant in Faribault, Minnesota to Santiago Chile, in order to build a display case for the remote San Pedro de Atacama Archeological Storage Museum that met the high preservation standards required in order to allow the public a view of this exceptional textile for the first time. Once the new museum building is complete, the custom built case will be used within the permanent exhibition space.



[1] Rasgo reconocible, una variación independiente de cualquiera de los elementos que componen un artefacto o como lo define D. L. Clarke (1984): “un carácter lógicamente irreductible de dos o más estados, actuando como variable independiente en el seno de un sistema de artefactos específicos”.

[2] Ayllu de San Pedro de Atacama


This article is intended for educational purposes only and does not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of Tru Vue or its employees. Tru Vue does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented.

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