National Museums in Portugal

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


Portugal began to develop a group of national museums in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its first collections were formed by the monarchy; and very much conditioned by the often difficult and complex relationship between the state and the Catholic Church. The first public museum in Portuguese territory was founded in Porto in 1833 to house artworks from monasteries; shut down as a result of the liberal’s victory in the civil war (1828-1834). Its creation was strongly related to the separation of Church and State with the suppression of the ecclesiastical orders in 1834 in a process that was completed in 1910 with the declaration of a secular republic. An extensive series of museums owe their existence to this transfer of church property to the state.

The evolution of Portuguese museums was heavily marked by the Military dictatorship (1926-1933) and by the Estado Novo (1933-1974) under the rule of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1933-1968). Though museums were managed by a council related to the Ministry of Education; during this period; the SPN; National Secretary of Propaganda; renamed the National Secretariat for Information; Popular Culture; and Tourism in 1945 (SNI); directed an authoritarian state policy that was mainly concerned with establishing a strong image of what should be considered as traditional or authentic Portuguese culture – a policy which also influenced the development of specific museums such as the Museum of Popular Art (Museu de Arte Popular) and a collection that would later become the National Tile Museum (Museum Nacional do Azulejo).

Portuguese museums experienced a rapid and intense period of modernisation in the 1980s and 1990s during which time they attempted to make up for a long period of social and economic lag in relation to the rest of Europe; developing an active cultural policy. The Ministry for Culture; created in the 1990s; is today directly responsible for 29 national museums; but other important institutions such as the well-known Maritime museum in Lisbon are run by the Ministry for Defence. Private financing and patronage is relatively marginal; the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto is the only example of a joint private and public administration. However; one should remember that Portugal’s most famous museum in the art world; the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian; is part of a private foundation (the museum itself is only one of the foundation’s activities).

Geographically speaking; there is a clear concentration of national museums in Lisbon; but there is a second important centre in Porto; including Portugal’s oldest national museum; the Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis; and its youngest avatar; the Serralves Foundation; with its museum of contemporary art (the Serralves is a part public; part private foundation). The Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro is the main museum of central Portugal; and the Museu de Évora is the principal state museum in the south of the country. Recent policy aims to develop a more balanced network from a geographical perspective; and some major municipal museums have been integrated into the network created by the Instituto Português de Museus (IMC) in order to give them greater national visibility. The Ministry for Culture also finances the Fundação Berardo; a foundation for modern and contemporary international art based on the a private collection of Joe Berardo and the foundation of the Museu do Douro; a network of regional museums dedicated to cultural and economic themes related to the Douro River Valley.

Portuguese national museums tend to be oriented in terms of national material culture. There are few important collections of European or extra-European art; and ethnographical museums tend to be more focused on domestic collections rather than on foreign ones; despite Portugal’s status as a former colonial empire. The decorative arts and folk arts play an important role; as illustrated by the already mentioned Museum of Popular Art and the National Tile Museum; the later dedicated entirely to the very nationally typical tradition of painted ceramics. Interestingly; the most popular of national Portuguese museums in terms of visitor numbers is the National Coach museum (Museu Nacional dos Coches).

The selection of case studies for this report has sought to reflect the different origins and initiatives behind some of the most important of Portugal’s national museums but also to illustrate a range of distinctive national narratives and their popularity today. It includes two of the three museums that officially held the title of ‘national’ from 1911 onwards: the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga and the Museu Nacional dos Coches (the third was the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea). In terms of visitor numbers; renown and popularity; there can be no doubt as to the essential position occupied by the Museu de Marinha; The Maritime museum (one of the most famous in Europe; and the most visited); the National Museum of Archaeology (Museu Nacional de Arquelogia) is housed in the same emblematic building; the Jerónimos Monastery. Originally created by personal initiatives; their history contrasts with the case of the National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) in Lisbon. This last museum will be considered alongside the Museu Nacional de Soures dos Reis (Porto) as the earliest national museums created in Portugal and as an example of the relationship between museum building; the monarchy and nationalisation of Church assets.


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