Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Back to Features 97

Raft found off
coast of Florida
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

Raft found 5-miles
off coast of Florida
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

Installation View
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

Raft found 2-miles
off coast of Florida
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

Installation View
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

Installation View
"Museo de los Balseros"
Fraklin Furnace, 1996

museo de los
at franklin furnace 

by Mary Anne Staniszewski

Last February when the Cuban military shot 

down two U.S. civilian airplanes, killing 

four members of the Florida-based 

organization Brothers to the Rescue and 

creating the latest catastrophe in Cuban-

American relations, there was something 

missing in the media coverage that I saw. 

In the television stories on Cuban and 

American reactions, the Time magazine 

exclusive interview with Fidel Castro, The 

New York Times editorials assessing the 

crisis, the pro-Castro cable tv shows, and 

the PBS special report with footage of The 

Brothers to the Rescue throwing memorial 

wreaths into the sea, there was nothing 

about the rafts and the Cuban people who 

have been sailing them since the 1960s in 

order to reach the United States. 

Opening one month after this crisis, George 

Sánchez's "Museo de los Balseros" (The Museum 

of the Rafters) at Franklin Furnace could 

not be more timely. Installed on the walls 

and floors of Franklin Furnace are several 

of these rafts, along with a vitrine of 

shoes, cans of unopened food, compasses, 

air pumps, and handmade Santeria figures. 

These worn and very human traces of the 

Cuban-American situation were found in 

rafts that floated to the shores of Florida 

empty of their inhabitants, many of whom 

had drowned making the journey to the U.S. 

This "museum" also includes a billboard 

with clippings and photos that document 

aspects of this migration as well as a 

shelf of publications and objects related 

to these people's beliefs--and hopes--such 

as the votive card and booklet about Cuba's 

patron saint and protector La Virgen de la 


Like any museum or gallery, this 

installation does estheticize these 

exhibited objects; at the same time, 

however, this particular project magnifies 

the social and political dimensions of 

these rafts and their meanings to the 

people of Cuba and the United States. The 

documentary material as well as a 

"conference" held during the first week of 

the installation tether these battered, 

handmade boats to their origins, history, 

and the people who tried to use them to 

cross the Florida Straits. 	

The "Museo de los Balseros" presents often 

overlooked elements of the story of the 

rafters, like the boxes of food that were 

the standard fare at the refugee camp at 

the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base. The Museo's 

components also regroup conventional 

affliations. The panel discussion held in 

conjuction with the show brought together 

an unlikely mix: a founding member of 

Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-American 

sociologist, a Borges scholar, and art 

critics. The installation also includes 

information about The Brothers, whose 

official mission is to save rafters and who 

are also associated with a conservative 

agenda to increase U.S. sanctions and 

aggression against Cuba. But their cause is 

reconfigured here as a much more complex 

element of this cultural landscape. 

However indebted the "Museo de los Balseros" 

may be to artist-museums such as the 

installations of Marcel Broodthaers, the 

Museo is distinguished by its hard-hitting 

emotional clout. Devoid of any sense of 

exploitation, the "Museo de los Balseros" 

forces the viewer to bear witness to 

remnants of the lives of the Balseros and 

in doing so offers a rare, and moving, 

experience to the gallery visitor.

Franklin Furnace, New York

Mar. 15 - Apr. 19

Mary Anne Staniszewski is author of 

Believing Is Seeing: Creating the Culture 

of Art (Penguin). She teaches at the Rhode 

Island School of Design.