Museum Disparity: Resources in the Heritage Industry. Examples from Portugal.

As you may know, I was on holiday over in northern Portugal just this summer gone. Although this was not such a museum/site centered visit as maybe those of Denmark and Norway, and I guess that is kind of the point of what I am going to talk to you about today. For many years, I thought it was just a Spanish issue the fact that our museums and galleries were few in number, poor in design and not very well-kept. Of course, please understand I am not talking of main attractions such as El Prado or other museums in Madrid and Barcelona. Places of national importance never suffer. I have a great example in Santander with the Museo Arqueologico de Cantabria: a museum that only has 10% of its collection on display, that opens as of when, and that kept the same sad look for over 2 decades…And we hold some pretty important Celtic heritage in there, you know? But I feared this may have been the same in other European countries in my visit to Italy. I was truly shocked by what was the so famous Academy in Florence, with the art of Michelangelo being kept inside, in this place that is easy to miss (or so it was in the year 2008), and that looked seriously run down. Perhaps I am just too used to the wonders of the French heritage industry. I mean, you all have been to France, maybe? You’d know that even the smallest village that has any artefact of historical/cultural interest is kept to the very best that can be, surrounded by information. The French have a wonderful ability to make an informative visit out of the finds of a detritus pit in a desolated archaeological site. Sure, I do not expect that all countries would have this ability, but it does make me think: what are we missing? I mean even here in the UK sometimes I get surprised by the lack of contextual information in sites managed by organisations such as English Heritage or The National Trust. Sometimes they seem to follow more business-like models, building events around these living treasures rather than for the sake of the history and knowledge preserved in them. And that is the problem, though, right? It is all about the money…

Whilst in Braga, I was lucky enough to make it down to the Museu D. Diogo de Sousa: the local archaeology museum. You can find the details here:

http://mdds.culturanorte.pt/pt-PT/Default.aspx

I must admit, for a small local museum, I found it pleasant. The fair to get in was more than reasonable, the material inside was certainly interesting – and to my surprise I found that even the actual shape of the museum has another cultural use: as a theatre for plays mostly in the spring and summer! That is a clever use of a multicultural space. I was disappointed to see we were the only people within the complex, however. Admittedly it was a hot sunny day, right after lunch, perhaps not the most propitious time for a museum visit. But even so. The gallery displays were very atmospheric, they reminded me to those used at the Nationalmuseet of Copenhagen: wood, glass, steel. Nice, modern, simple, useful. Some other items, like the many stone pillars found on the basement floor were simply displayed in the open, with different light uses, which I believe are done this way to ensure their preservation.

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Nevertheless, and although I really enjoyed the collection, I found that there was a considerable lack of explanations: no contextual panels, no more than a few words written next to each artefact. I also found there was a fair amount of empty space. There was one monitor used to display different aspects of Portuguese history within the context of prehistory and the Roman empire – which is the main focus of the collection. But there was no sound to go with the images, and only one screen which looked rather small in such an empty wall. Then as you leave the museum it is very easy to miss the fact that there is a roman mosaic in the basement of the facilities – a lovely guide took us there because she could clearly see we were pretty lost.

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As we left the museum, we landed on the roman baths just across the road. Strangely enough, this is a very easy place to miss. The facilities left me again with a mixed feeling: this site is actually still being excavated by the archaeology students at the university of Braga, because the found the remains of what seems to be an earlier theatre by the side of the dig. Yet there was all of 3 more people apart from ourselves. The staff was very friendly and asked us whether we wanted to watch the video in Portuguese or English. The thing is that before you go and actually see the site there is this small entrance hall with a big TV and some chairs were they show you a video explaining the changes in the uses of the baths – which was really cool by the way, and well informative. And then, off you go into this site…

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The ruins of the baths are covered, and there is a few places where you can sit if you may. But that is pretty much it…Why?! These things are cool and in a remarkable preservation state for where they have been found! PLUS the theatre on the side which you can just about make out.

…We found a similar thing when we went to the beautiful Guimarães, where we visited the Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento, which is in a wonderful building that holds, according to the towns own tourism website: “principal referência da cultura castreja em Portugal e um dos mais importantes museus de todo o espaço europeu onde se manifestou aquela cultura”. In english: one of the best example of the castro culture in Portugal and one of the most important collections in europe regarding the subject…And trust me: it is.

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There is an entire archaeological site thrown in those 19th century cases screaming history at you.

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Yet, once again, we were the only visitors, and the lack of information and display use was devastating. Granted, we were given an A4 page with info on each display case…How can we be keeping these things like that?! And okay, I get it, this is probably the original display, which is super cool that has kept for this long, but…Did I miss something? I mean, I am sure I did. Anyway, this is the web to the museum http://www.csarmento.uminho.pt/sms.asp

Then, we have weird things right? Like in the same town you have the castle of Afonso Henriques, conqueror of Portugal, and all I could think about the display (which is awesome!) was: “Well, I am having such flashbacks of the castle of William the Conqueror in Falaise”.

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Just wonderful amount of information, very creative, innovative and modern. I could have stayed there for hours and hours. And the little video with the cartoons explaining the history of the first king of Portugal was just A+ work. The same goes to the palace of the dukes of Braganza: collection that envies no other ducal manor house I’ve been to…

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Apparently some people on TripAdivsor were complaining that it was “very empty”…

So what went “wrong” with the other sites? Or the amazing collection at Rates explaining the entire story of their quirky church, which by the sounds of it only me and mum heard probably for days according to the guide inside the gallery. And this was free by the way – the rest were not. Then we have the example of a superb museum (more about this at a later stage; watch this space) in Porto: World of Discoveries. An entire museum dedicated to the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Taking out the tickets, the receptionist asked us how did we know the museum was there! The very receptionist! And this museum was nothing like the others: this is a modern museum, with plenty of funding coming through, with temporary exhibitions that are multicultural and multifunded – and with a thematic restaurant on the top…And a wonderful gift shop. With information in like 5 or 7 different languages…

But that eyrie question…How did you know?…Were we not supposed to? Are we doing cultural visits wrong? Or perhaps we are the odd kind of tourists, going to a wonderful place like Portugal expecting something else than nice beaches and sunny weather? And if that is the case…what are we doing to our heritage industries? Because it sounds to me like we are deviating them from any real value, and taking away the power of knowledge from the public. And that, is not right. Public awareness needs to increase, potentially through a reconsideration of what heritage is and how we use it.

 

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