Much has been said and written lately about the role of culture and more specifically of museums in today’s society. This has been a much debated topic in recent years, with the pandemic situation experienced in 2020 and 2021 rekindling interest and giving rise to a diversity of positions, critical analyses and many opinions.
Among several initiatives led by civil society, we highlight the Cultural Heritage Platform, a declaration signed by several associations which aims to assert ‘heritage as a strategic value and national opportunity’. It adds that ‘Cultural Heritage is the most precious asset of any country, especially those with older historical journeys and whose natural resources have been partially depleted over time. This is an asset which every generation, present and future, should feel they have been entrusted, and something that ranges beyond the strictly national domain. We cannot consider ourselves the owners of everything that was bequeathed to us collectively and which, for the most part, belongs to those who came before us. It is up to us to share it with our contemporaries and with those who will succeed us. Caring for and developing Cultural Heritage, beyond the consequences of National, European or Universal law, is therefore an imperative for civilisation and citizenship”.
This problem cuts across various fields of knowledge and goes beyond local, regional and international borders. On the other hand, questions relating to heritage preservation and appreciation do not just arise in urban centres, they seem to intensify in inland regions and low-density territories, where the challenges faced by culture and cultural mediation are even more complex.
As a matter of fact, if we go back in time, it is not that long ago that these questions were posed. It was an obvious concern for Serrão Martins and Cláudio Torres when, in the late 1970s, they realised that the driving force of the region’s development was the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage and cultural values of the past, transforming them into resources and important links in a dynamic mechanism, which would enhance projects and actions. This was the past, present and a glimpse of the future of Mértola. This is also the mission of the Museu de Mértola (Mértola Museum) which focuses on the preservation, enhancement and dissemination of the territory’s cultural heritage with a view to building collective memory and strengthening the identity bonds of the local community.
To this end, over the last 4 decades an interesting museological project has been carried out in Mértola where the Town itself is the Museum. In the words of Cláudio Torres, ‘society as a whole, any community, must preserve, protect and value its most precious possessions, evidence and documents, marks, objects and artefacts that bear signs of its collective memory. This place of memory can and should be the museum. A protected space capable of concentrating and synthesising the soul of a site or territory, capable of dignifying the deepest character of a community. The local museum becomes even more significant when it is divided into several thematic centres and when these gradually include protected areas, access roads, gates and bays, walls, vegetable gardens and orchards. And especially when inside, living their lives and benefiting from this past, there are interested, engaged and supportive people. This is, little by little, the Museu de Mértola (Mértola Museum)”.
The ‘núcleo museológico de Arte Islâmica’ (Islamic Art Museum), inaugurated almost 20 years ago, in December 2001, is an example of the work that has been carried out in Mértola. The access panel to the museum reflects the objectives of its formation: ‘the written document, in its lines and between the lines, aims to note for posterity the deeds of the powerful, the records of a bespoke history. Of the oppressed, without writing, remains the faint remnant of a gesture or a musical chord, remains the humble everyday artefact, the dark pot faded with fatigue or the candlestick where the oil has dried up”. Cláudio Torres and Santiago Macias are responsible for the design, coordination and contents which, together with a large and diverse team, they have developed over the years as a research, study, inventory and conservation work of excellence.
Archaeology, especially the work by the Campo Arqueológico de Mértola (Mértola Archaeological Site) in the Alcáçova (Alcazaba), has made it possible to bring together an important collection of everyday objects from the life of a distant past, the echoes of which are seen in structures, techniques, customs and knowledge still familiar and close to us. To host this exceptional batch of materials, an old 18th-century warehouse was chosen, located in the heart of the historic centre, near the old Porta da Ribeira, owned by the Town Hall and rehabilitated through a project by Architect José Alberto Alegria, financed by the Institute of Financing and Support to Tourism, the Directorate General for Spatial Planning and by the Municipality, as a part of the Projeto Integrado de Mértola (Integrated Mértola Project). The architectural design and museography highlight the characteristics of the building itself. The lines, colours and shapes underline the presence of the Islamic heritage and create a logical and coherent discourse. In the Catalogue text, António Borges Coelho says that ‘dreams have come true. The soil revealed secrets, the town started to put together the collection: Roman Museum, Religious Art Museum, Palaeo-Christian Museum, Blacksmith Museum, and now the Islamic Museum. For almost a quarter of a century, the team led by Cláudio Torres, supported by the population, the Municipality and a network of friends, put the town on the map, as they say now, on the map of Portugal, on the map of a cultured Europe and again on the map of the Mediterranean Sea. (…) History uncovers the town’s roots and underpins much of its development”.
Almost 20 years have passed and the ‘núcleo de Arte Islâmica’ (Islamic Art Museum) has a whole new look. Nothing that changes the initial ideas of its creators in terms of contents and museographic discourse. It is adapting to new times, times in which environmental concerns and communication with different crowds have changed. Over the last few months, the building was subject to maintenance works aiming to correct malfunctions that result from the passing of time, as well as develop actions aimed at greater energy efficiency, create suitable environmental conditions for those who work here, those who visit and the conservation of the collection on display, and promote accessibility for All.
We believe that museums are dynamic and that they must keep up with the changes taking place in society. We also believe that Cultural Heritage and preserving memory are essential to promote values of sharing, responsibility, respect, democracy and that they are driving forces in a sustainable development based on local knowledge and on the involvement of people. What we are doing results from the work of a large team whose objective is to reach as many people as possible, sharing knowledge, providing moments of education and entertainment, helping them grow on a personal and professional level and as active members of society. Our goal is ambitious, and at times utopian, but it results from People working for People, and the 20 years of work in the ‘núcleo de Arte Islâmica’ serve as an example of that.
We will re-open soon. Visit us and discover in the building, the texts, the display cases, the objects and the contact with the person who greets you, the importance of this route, which can take you to visit 14 places that tell the story of this territory and the people who lived and live here. Consider yourself invited…
1 In, Plataforma pelo Património Cultural (PPCULT), 2021.
2 TORRES, Cláudio, “Museus e Turismo” in, GÓMEZ Martinez, Susana (cord.), Museu de Mértola – Catálogo Geral, Mértola, Campo Arqueológico de Mértola, 2014, pg. 19.
3 TORRES, Cláudio e MACIAS, Santiago, “Contruir um Museu” in, Museu de Mértola – Arte islâmica, Mértola, Campo Arqueológico de Mértola, 2001, pg. 7.
4 COELHO, António Borges, “Mértola. Museu Islâmico” in, TORRES, Cláudio e MACIAS, Santiago (coords.), Museu de Mértola – Arte Islâmica, Mértola, Campo Arqueológico de Mértola, 2001, pg. 15.