“Para narrar a História de Portugal”: A museum, a history and a nation

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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A week ago, an article by Nuno Vassallo e Silva appeared in Público, the Portuguese newspaper, criticizing the “greater administrative and financial autonomy” that will be granted to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA), freeing it largely from the bureaucratic constraints of the general direction of patrimony and culture, the DGPC. The author, a former director of the DGPC among other things, divides the arguments around this new juridical status under the category of patrimony and finances. I confess my ignorance of the administrative and financial realities of the museum, the viability of managing it independently (more or less so), or how DGCP allots funds internally between the various institutions under its stewardship.

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It is rather to the author’s notion of patrimony that I should like to turn now and his view of what national museums are (or should be) about. He provides the following example to illuminate his point: “To narrate the History of Portugal, this should be obligatorily accompanied by the collections of the National Archaeological Museum, without excluding a passage from the Machado de Castro National Museum, and not only, concluding with the National Museum of Contemporary Art-Museum of Chiado. With the collection of the museum alone this identity journey would be significantly incomplete”. The first problematic point is the tacit (and inexplicable) assumption that a possible autonomy of the museum would render somehow impossible the borrowing from other national museums or the organization of joint exhibitions. The second problematic point, and the most crucial here, is the author’s concept of what the mission of a national museum is.

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When national museums started being established all over Europe, the inclusiveness of a museum addressed to the nation was almost a revolutionary statement. The museums were invariably seen not only as repositories (of art, natural history specimens etc.), but also as educational instruments for the greater public. Nevertheless, the term ‘national’ has never exclusively referred to the contents of museums’ collections. Thus, the National Gallery in London is not a gallery of British Art (that would be the Tate Britain), any more than the Museo Nacional del Prado is a museum of Spanish art. There are even museums that are national but do not bear the word in their name, such as the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, or museums that qualify as state museums (such as the Hermitage or the Tretyakov Gallery). Similarly, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is not a museum of Portuguese art. Much to the contrary, it is the museum with the most important non-Portuguese art collection in the country (including European painting, tapestries, furniture and decorative arts), apart from the Calouste Gulbenkian museum which is not discussed in the same breadth, as it is a museum run by a Foundation and has a different status.

From where does it follow, then, that the mission of the MNAA should be, primarily, the “narrating of the history of Portugal”? The only positive example provided in the article of the museum’s international presence has precisely to do with the “understanding of the national collections as a whole” and the museum’s role in their international projection (referring to the presentation of the A Arquitectura Imaginária: Pintura, Escultura, Artes Decorativas exhibition in Torino).

Even more troubling is the notion of a history of Portugal that stretches unbroken from antiquity till today. How else to account for the reference to the Museu de Arqueologia in the example? It is not a vision that much different than the one reflected in the questionable title Arte Portuguesa. Da Pré-História ao Século XX, of the 20-volume art history that appeared as recently as 2009, as if Portuguese art (and, by extension, Portuguese identity) could be traced back to prehistory through the centuries. The identity discourse put forward in this article is nothing short of reactionary.

Furthermore, the idea of the museum’s role on an international stage is retrograde, provincial and close-minded. When the author claims that the MNAA “cannot be compared to great foreign museums”, he establishes a very questionable criterion of the quality of the collections, and the lack of their “reach in global patrimony”, unlike what happens with the Prado (example provided by the author). Comparisons most frequently serve as judgments, “establishing hierarchies” (Mieke Bal 2005), and diminishing one of the parts of the equation, the inevitable “not as good as” outcome [1]. Art historians should be weary of such comparisons and the conclusions derived from them. If the MNAA does not have the global reach of the Prado, this is not an indictment of the museum’s collections nor is it a fate to be mournfully accepted. It has a lot more to do with the fine arts canon, where painting and sculpture are privileged in detriment to the decorative (still pejoratively called ‘minor’) arts. The MNAA is uniquely positioned to challenge this dominant paradigm (operating equally in academia, the art market and the museum world at large), drawing from its considerable collections to help construct a discourse that includes the decorative arts and addresses a wide range of issues, such as the value of manual work, the cult of authorship and the individual etc.

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Instead of focusing on its holdings of Portuguese art (which it undoubtedly has the obligation to study, preserve and promote), the MNAA owns objects from all over the world, objects that grew out of the long history of Portuguese expansion. In a world where empire is far from a thing of the past, the museum has the responsibility to use this cultural legacy to criticize the country’s imperial past, dialogue with other countries that attempt to do the same and work towards breaking down the traditional conceptual divisions between East and West. In a recent interview, Penelope Curtis, the director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, proposed to do just that, rethink the way “we tell the history of art history”, divide collections and separate East from West, along categories that is urgent to redefine. In the end, it is the difference between a place from where to see the world, and a place from where to see only Portugal.

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[1] “‘[Comparison] quickly becomes a ground for (relative) judgement and establishing hierarchies, and it distracts from looking” and “There are, however, other forms of comparison, not built on a logic of oppositional judgement. Comparison can be a tool for analysis as long as one of its terms is not established as normative”. From Mieke Bal, “Grounds of Comparison,” in The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentilleschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, ed. Mieke Bal (Chicago and London, 2005), 129–67; cited in Craig Clunas, “The Art of Global Comparisons,” in Writing the History of the Global: Challenges for the 21st Century, ed. Maxine Berg (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2013), 165–176.

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