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For 2 months we received the intern Valentina del Campo, PhD, student at the University of Catania (Sicily/Italy).

For 2 months we received the intern Valentina del Campo, PhD, student at the University of Catania (Sicily/Italy). Below are her impressions on the time she spent with the Mértola Museum-Cláudio Torres team.

Narrating roots and preserving memory: the town of Mértola as a cure for the soul
Since 2020, together with others, I have been involved in the development of the Simeto Ecomuseum, in Sicily (Italy), a project active in 11 unicipalities of the Simeto River Valley, involving towns in the province of Catania and Enna. I approached the project of this ecomuseum to find a bridge between theory on heritage education – the subject of my master’s thesis in museology – and practice, to plan educational activities for schools aimed at making students aware of the history of the territory, as well as to be attentive and sensitive to the issues of conservation, protection and enhancement of cultural and environmental heritage.
Since December 2021, the furthering of these issues has been taking place through my PhD training in ‘Training Processes, Theoretical-transformative Models and Research Methods Applied to the Territory’ at the Department of Education of the University of Catania. The PhD course is characterised by the investigation of new citizenship practices related to identity processes and participatory local development, sustainable territorial development, as well as its social, cultural, economic and tourism development. On that basis, the meaning of my research became even clearer, extending to a deep understanding of the need to involve not only the younger generations in heritage education processes, but also adults and communities from a perspective of lifelong education, which consists of ‘any activity undertaken by people in a formal, non-formal, and informal way, at various stages of life, in order to improve knowledge, skills and competences, in a personal, civic, social and occupational perspective’.
The PhD also includes a period of research abroad and, following the suggestions of Professor Manuelina Maria Duarte Cândido, from the University of Liège, Belgium, my didactic supervisor abroad, and my friend and researcher Giusy Pappalardo, from the University of Catania, who had the same experience, I chose the Department of Museology of the Lusófona University of Lisbon, where issues of heritage education are of great importance, as the destination to carry out my residency project.
From Lisbon, where I took my first period of residency, I arrived in the town of Mértola to spend the months of May and June and to further the museum process that has been developing here for over 40 years. To welcome me, Lígia Rafael, coordinator of the Mértola Museum – Cláudio Torres, an essential reference in my journey here, accompanied me with passion to discover the various museological nuclei of the town, proudly showing me the importance of the work developed in this area.
Mértola is located in the Alentejo region, the largest in Portugal, but also one of the poorest and most depopulated, in an area considered to be marginal. This is why there is a desire for redemption here; which is pursued through the implementation of sustainable development projects strongly focused on local cultural resources, trying to develop new paradigms of territorial interpretation that go beyond the concept of marginality and development.
I arrived here from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon and found myself walking through silent alleys with history scattered around every corner. The peace is such that even the storks have chosen this place to nest peacefully. Going for a walk while looking at the sky, you will find these beautiful creatures even on the roof of the municipal movie theatre.
Along the streets of the oldest part of the town of Mértola, with its whitewashed houses and its dazzling light, one can contemplate the wild beauty of the Guadiana River which, in the past, was an important river trading post for the entire Peninsula. It is a village of Islamic origin and those roots, those memories, are important for the community, both in archaeological and artistic terms.
These were two intense months, a real journey through the centuries and the people who left their trace here. More than 40 years after it all began, in 1978, the need that moved the pioneers of this museum process to recover and safeguard the archaeological heritage of this territory and the will to tell and retell its history also through the ancient textiles produced on the loom is still very clear.
After all, what are fabrics but an intersection of chromatically and materially combined threads?
But they are also a metaphor for that crossing of experiences, ideas and dreams that each of us bring, putting them at the service of a community to give life to projects that speak of each one and become the heritage of all. And just like the threads of a blanket worked on a 300-year-old loom, united, interwoven and with the same desire for redemption of the past, they continue the work enriching the collective memory.
In this small Alentejo village, there is perfect integration between past and present, tradition and innovation, in such a way that it is a true outdoor museum, since it has a heritage that is not only preserved in the museum centres, but extends to the houses, the streets, the urban layout, the traces of daily life and the memories of ancient knowledge.
Here, too, there is work dedicated to intangible heritage: I am thinking of the beauty of the Cante Alentejano (type of music) – inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014 – which the population still practices with pride, as an imperishable memory for future generations. Elders and youngsters sing in chorus about that which has always been the heritage of this land: rural life, nature, love, religion, but also, inevitably, the social and cultural changes of contemporary society.
The Cante personifies this strong sense of identity and belonging of the Alentejo communities and contributes to social cohesion: this became evident to my eyes when I watched the ‘Grupo Comunitário de Artes Performativas’ (Community Group of Performing Arts, in English) at the movie theatre Cine-Teatro Marques Duque. There, guided by the vibrant sound of Celina da Piedade’s accordion and Ana Santos’ violin, individuals from different origins were united by the language of music… just as the language of museums, 45 years ago, united the group of researchers to the indigenous community.
And music was also the protagonist of another event, in the Largo da Igreja Matriz square, where six choir groups from the surrounding areas of Mértola participated in the ‘Futurama Festival’. In addition to a traditional song from their own repertoire, they performed a new theme written for them by several other Portuguese authors. An asset for me, on that festive evening, was Guilhermina Bento, a passionate singer and interpreter of the Cante Alentejano who, with her distinctive enthusiasm, explained to me step by step the reason for the traditional clothes and objects worn by some of the singers, as well as the meaning of some words that are difficult for me to read because I don’t know Portuguese well. The soul of the territory and the pride of its identity is concentrated in these women and men.
My most intense and eventful days in Mértola were during the Islamic festival, which has only been taking place here, in odd years, since 2001. I wanted to contribute to the work of the team at Mértola Museum who so warmly welcomed me, working in the temporary exhibition room of the Castle on the exhibition scheduled for the days of the festival: ‘Do Artesanato ao Design’ – Loulé Criativo, Associação Passa ao Futuro and Via Criativa, where, once again, the focus was on the combination of the world of tradition with the world of innovation, combining traditional techniques and modern design. I was able to listen to the comments of the most attentive visitors and interact with them about the importance of never neglecting ‘where we come from and who we were in the past, but projecting ourselves into the future with a curious and attentive gaze’.

In the 12 th edition of this great event, which attracts tourists from Portugal, Spain, France, England, Italy and other countries, I could feel for myself what the importance of the Islamic past means for Alentejo. The Islamic Art unit exhibits some monumental traces of the ancient Islamic Martulah, recreated as if it were a typical house of that historical period, with a panel and a dome in the centre of the museum space, representing the encounter between the urban and rural worlds, between tradition and innovation. And it is precisely from the intersection between tradition and innovation that, during the days of the festival, a mix of music, dance, songs and shows of various kinds emerged, skilfully blending seemingly distant but similar cultures. A celebration of cultural diversity that bears witness to Mértola’s rich historical past.
Mértola is a small but extremely lively town from a cultural point of view and, curiously enough, offers access to its museum units – as well as to events, festivals, shows and exhibitions – completely free of charge, by virtue of this process of democratisation of culture focused on sharing, participation and inclusion.
During the two months of my stay, I was able to participate in many events that allowed me to dive into the life of the place and appreciate the flavours of the food. I already know I’m going to miss the bifana (steak sandwich) from Café Guadiana and the coffee from the ‘secret bar’. As much as (and more than) the food, I will miss the people who enriched my stay in Alentejo during these months: Lígia, a person attentive to the needs of others and a tireless researcher, then Rute and Nélia who took care of me as if they were older sisters.
How could I forget my adventure and roommate, Valeria Martin Silva, a PhD student at the University of Huelva, the hug of Claudio Torres, the kindness and skill of Fernando with his explanations in Italian during the visits, the human warmth of Guilhermina, the kindness of Mafalda and Pedro, the women from the Weaving Workshop and all the people who are part of the team at the Museum and Archaeological Site of Mértola, Virgílio Lopes, Susana Gómez, Clara Rodrigues and many others that I’m sorry if I can’t name them one by one!
I will miss the friendliness of the locals who, although a little shy at first, then mingled as only we, southerners, know how to.
I am grateful to everyone for this welcome. I thank the representatives of the City Council who welcomed me when I arrived here.
I leave now with the hope that the whole community will better perceive the value of its history and will increasingly support the work of these men and women, dedicated to the preservation of memory; I leave with the certainty that I have enriched my personal and professional life, but also my research work, which will now continue elsewhere, just like a river: “[…] following its course and, whatever may get in its way, overcoming it and moving on until it flows into the sea’.
Valentina Del Campo, June 2023

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