Chile has a fascinating history, and this well-done museum picks up where the excellent Pre-Colombian Art Museum (located nearby) leaves off. The National History Museum covers the period of time from the European discovery of the Americas to the present (sort of...more on that later). It features several rooms of exhibits, and the easy-to-follow layout leads the visitor from discovery to the colonial era, through independence and into the modern era.
The Good News:
The museum is highly recommended for history buffs, as it contains a wealth of information and anyone interested in history will find something to enjoy. The history of Chile contains a bit of everything, including wars, industry, colonial era expansion, conflict between Europeans and American natives, railroads, etc. In other words, if you're more interested in railroads than wars, just keep moving and you'll find something that's up your alley. There are also many relics best described as “cool,” such as dueling pistols owned by Bernardo O'Higgins himself.
Interestingly, this museum is also highly recommended for art fans, particularly those who enjoy good paintings. This museum houses enough original portraits to fill an impressive room at any art museum. There are excellent portraits of many of the most important figures in Chile's history, including Ferdinand Magellan (who was the first to explore southern and western Chile as part of his trip around the world), Bernardo O'Higgins, José de San Martín and many, many more.
The Bad News:
The museum does have some drawbacks, however. It's very old-school: roped off-displays, dusty dioramas, etc. Today's kids from the USA and Europe, used to modern, interactive museums, will be bored stiff.
Most frustrating, however, is the fact that the museum displays abruptly stop in 1973 with a description of the coup that deposed Salvador Allende and brought Augusto Pinochet to power. The final section, which includes a stirring display of Allende's broken glasses (he died during the takeover, presumably by his own hand), is outstanding, but there is nothing about Pinochet and the subsequent years. A conversation with a candid guard revealed that Pinochet is still far too controversial a figure, despite the fact that he has been dead for years and out of power since the 1990's. Many Chileans see him as a monster, but an equal number see him as a savior who is responsible for the prosperity and stability enjoyed today. Most Chileans tend to believe one side or the other: almost no one is neutral. The museum has prudently decided to wait for passions to wane before putting together an exhibit that would probably offend both sides.
The Chilean National History Museum is hard to miss: it's located right on Santiago's Plaza de Armas, the main square of the historic downtown area. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. To 5:30 p.m. Admission: varies according to exchange rate, but is less than $3. Discounted prices for seniors, students and groups.