By Joana Monteiro
Director of the Museum of Lisbon
Challenges in managing a city museum: the Museum of Lisbon in times of change
There are two global trends directly connected to this case study: the growth and increasing complexity of cities in the world, and the changing role of museums in the present time. City museums are one of the most interesting categories of museums in the world. They are history museums, while they also try to reflect the cities fast (and sometimes radical) progress in space, in their residents, in mobility, in resources and sustainability. It can be perceived as a paradox: to keep on research and interpretate the city’s history, while being active in its present life. That is why city museums can somehow act differently from other types of history museums. Considering the current issue of the ENCACT publication, the focus is the wonderful city of Lisbon, which makes this case to be the Museum of Lisbon, rather than broader matters related to museums and cities. The article tackles three recent projects developed by the Museum of Lisbon, mostly about the contemporary city: a project concerning possible futures for Lisbon; a photography exhibition on the COVID-19 lockdown effect in the city; and a research project about the history, present and future of the vegetable gardens of Lisbon.
The Museum of Lisbon and its History
The Museum of Lisbon research and conveys the city’s past, present and future. Like all city museums, it designs and presents exhibition programmes about different periods in time. Lisbon counts on more than 2,000 years long history, embracing the Roman and the Arab heritage, the urban and social transformation during the imperial times throughout the 15th to 18th centuries, the modern urban planning strategies following the 1755 earthquake, the Republican alterations, the dictatorship and the Cloves Revolution in 1974, up to the modern city.
Formally created in 1908, the Museum of Lisbon opened to the public in the 40’s in different spaces before opening in its current main premises in 1979, as a history museum. It was programmed to present the history of the city by drawing on its finest collections of decorative arts, archaeology and the fine arts, with a strong “historical” identity which lingered for a long time, ignoring the ever-changing city around it. It was called “Museum of The City” until 2015, when it changed its name (to its current one: Museum of Lisbon), as well as its mission, organizational structure (a multi-site museum) and programmes. The Museums is spread in five spaces: Pimenta Palace (headquarters, permanent exhibition), Roman Theatre museum, Saint Anthony museum, Casa dos Bicos archaeological site, and West Tower (for temporary exhibitions). Research-based exhibition projects like “The Light of Lisbon” (2015), “The Lisbon that Could Have Been” (2016), “Under our Feet” (2018) and “Plural Lisbon” (2019), to name a few, have been adding value to the knowledge and awareness about what the city is now and was in the past, sharing many ways in which people can recognise its individuality, as well as its common cultural heritage.
The museum operates to display the uniqueness of Lisbon, as a reference point for the city past and present; promotes the sense of belonging, while acknowledging diversity and relevance (Simon, 2016); drives new themes like migration, food, housing, urban vegetable gardens, etc.; and encourages the reinterpretation of old myths and traditions about the city. The Museum of Lisbon is, hence, striving to become a city museum of the “second generation” (Lanz, 2013), as part of the international movement observed in many areas of the world today (Jones, 2012). City museums are rooted in the city but open to the world as a portal to the metropolis and its neighbourhoods, connecting spaces and historical narratives, as well as reconnecting centres and peripheries (Roca, 2018).
Reflecting on possible futures for Lisbon
We have decided to take the risk in making an exhibition and a book about futures scenarios in Lisbon, undertaking a cross-disciplinary perspective about some of the paths the city may go through in the future. The exhibition was presented at the Museum of Lisbon’s West Tower site, between July and November 2018. It was commissioned by three curators: an architect, a geographer, and an environmental engineer – Manuel Graça Dias, João Seixas and Sofia Guedes Vaz – prompting different, and sometimes opposing perspectives. They worked with two curators from the Museum and a group of 21 consultants, who wrote 13 essays published in the exhibition book on ethics, geography, economics, ecology, psychology, education, neurosciences, mobility, housing and culture (AAVV, 2018). The programme of talks followed some of these topics, which gave the participants some unexpected food for thought.
Rather than trying to get a clear picture of the future, the main purpose was to raise questions about the present time in the city and how it could evolve, choosing neither utopian nor dystopian scenarios. The main questions were the following: what can be more important to this city in the future?; what will a sustainable city look like?; will the city identity values be the same?; where will the city stand between a global and a local perspective (Monteiro, 2020)?
Prior to the exhibition opening, the Museum set up an engaging project with the audiences on their ideas about how the future of Lisbon should be. The museum got over 150 proposals of which the best ones were displayed in the exhibition and published in the catalogue. The material included some heartfelt “goods and bads” about the city and some daring proposals regarding the (pre-Covid) excess of tourism. In the exhibition, the programme of talks and the book, one can find multiple narratives and diverse insights that construct an altogether richer, inclusive vision of the city.
The lockdown effect in the city’s landscape
COVID-19 created unprecedent challenges for museums worldwide. Like so many others, the Museum of Lisbon had to close its doors between March and May 2020. The constraints caused by the outbreak completely challenged our programmes and engaging strategies. However, the tremendous impact the lockdown had in the city life, mainly during March and April, drove us to be responsive and to create an exhibition about it through the eyes of four photojournalists. The Museum of Lisbon presented the exhibition “Still Lisbon – Perspectives on the City During the Quarantine”, curated by Rita Palla Aragão, from July 24 to September 20 at the Museum of Lisbon – Pimenta Palace. It featured photographs by Pedro Nunes, Tiago Miranda, Luís Miguel Sousa and José Fernandes.
The city came to a halt and with it, so did most daily activities in airports, roads, schools, theatres, museums, coffee-shops, marketplaces and so on. Lisbon was still, the movement of its inhabitants stopped, and the everyday small gestures of each of us disappeared in the public eye. Without notice, Lisbon lost its tourists, their most visited neighbourhoods were completely empty, leaving so many pictures of a city brimming with people. In the words of the curator, Lisbon, a bright vivid colourful city, was suddenly a non-place, as a city can only be one with people in it. And that had to be documented and reflected on by the Museum.
“Still Lisbon” showcased four photographic perspectives that managed to capture the essence, and the beauty of a city during the lockdown – a city that resisted through its poetry. The public reactions to the exhibition, the tours and the talks ranged from few expressions of appreciation about how beautiful the city was without tourists and cars, to many manifestations of anguish (even cry), and solidarity from the apocalyptic scene of an empty Lisbon.
The past and the future of Lisbon’s vegetable gardens
It is expected that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. It will be increasingly difficult to have access to sustainable and healthy food produced with less waste and self-sufficiency. Short food supply chains (bringing producers and consumers closer) can contribute to encourage more resilient cities, while reducing food dependence.
Lisbon belongs to a larger metropolitan area with agricultural and forest areas, which occupy more than 50% of the territory. What food transition –also ecological and energy-related– can be designed for Lisbon? The main 2020 temporary exhibition at the Museum of Lisbon opened in October and will stay on show until September 2021. It is about the importance of urban vegetable gardens since the Middle-Ages until our time, and its relevance to the urban landscape and to food and climate sustainability.
It all began almost four years ago by an ethnographic fieldwork with vegetable gardeners working in public and private horticultural parks in the city. We got a sample of a very diverse population coming from different cultural backgrounds, nationalities and motivations to plant, reflecting the urban mesh and the city’s demographic composition. Stories about cultural habits, seeds and plants, the link to nature and sustainability goals emerged.
Lisbon vegetable gardens have been a significant element of the urban landscape since ancient times, and vital to the subsistence of urban populations: scattered through backyards, irrigated valleys, monastic grounds, suburban farms, bourgeois homes, allotments, vacant plots and more recently, public horticultural parks. As one can learn in the exhibition, vegetable gardens are essential to food sovereignty, security and sustainability in cities. They can also be places of enjoyment and enchantment, nurturing the sense of belonging and the connection to nature within the urban space.
Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the exhibition displays cartography, painting, literature, objects, photography and video, showing territories and routes, strategies and policies. The exhibition presents the fascinating world of Lisbon’s vegetable gardens over time, from the monastic gardens to the present-day parks. Although we must adapt the museum programmes to the pandemic restrictions, audiences can enjoy a wide set of talks, special tours with the curators and researchers, family activities, besides tours to some vegetable gardens in the city whenever it will be feasible.
The reflections on possible futures for Lisbon, the photo exhibition as a response to the lockdown effect in the city, and the result of a long research project about vegetable gardens and food sustainability are some examples of the recent work done at the Museum of Lisbon. Other exhibitions and publications focus on various historical matters, with endless points of interest relevant to the self-awareness, identity-values and sense of place of those who live in the city.
Questions for further discussion
- What can be the future of city museums in the world in the post-Covid era, baring in mind the changes in due course?
- Climate change and shortage of supplies must remain a priority theme of work. How should museums keep on being active in tackling these difficult, sometimes conflictual topics?
- At what extent should city museums focus on the present and the future without loosing track of the regular goal of museums, i.e. researching and communicating the past?
AAVV. (2018) Futuros de Lisboa (exhibition catalogue). Lisboa: Museu de Lisboa.
LANZ, F. et al. (Eds.) (2013) European Museums in the 21st Century: Setting the Framework. Volume 2. Milano: Mela Books, Politecnico di Milano.
JONES, I. et all (2012) Our Greatest Artefact: the city. Essays on cities and museums about them. Istanbul: CAMOC/ ICOM International Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities.
MONTEIRO, J. (2020) “An Impossible Future is the Most Probable: an experience at the Museum of Lisbon”. Museum of Cities as Cultural Hubs: Past, Present and Future – Book of Proceedings, CAMOC Annual Conference, September 2019, ICOM/ CAMOC Kyoto, Japan (152-157).
SIMON, N. (2016) The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Nina Simon Publisher.
Joana Sousa Monteiro is a museologist. She is director of the Museum of Lisbon since 2015. From 2010 to 2015 she was a museum and heritage adviser to the Lisbon Councillor for Culture. Previously, she was Assistant Coordinator and manager of the Portuguese Museums Network at the National Institute of Museums (2000-2010), working on the accreditation scheme for Portuguese museums, and managing museum financial and technical support programmes. She worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art (1997-2000) in research and learning programmes. She collaborated in exhibitions at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (1994). She has taught museology and museum management at universities in Lisbon, Oporto and Évora. She holds a degree in Art History (Universidade Nova, 1993), an MA in Museology (Universidade Lusófona, 2000), and an MA in Arts Management (ISCTE University, 2010). She has been member of the Portuguese National Committee of ICOM (Secretary, 2013- 2016) and is Chair of ICOM – CAMOC, the International Committee for the Collections and Activities of the Museums of Cities (since 2016).