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Zélie Blampain, Master’s student in Museology at the University of Liège (Belgium)

Zélie Blampain, Master’s student in Museology at the University of Liège (Belgium), did an internship at the Mértola Museum – Cláudio Torres from 12 October to 15 December 2023, and describes this period in the text below, which she calls ‘Internship in Mértola – an elusive spirit’.:
‘I arrived in Mértola under a sun that felt very summery, even though it was the middle of October, and left soon afterwards under still clear skies. In two months I got used to the sun, but not the landscape. As someone from Belgium, also called the ‘flat land’, Mértola’s reliefs never fail to take my breath away – in every sense of the word.
I was lucky enough to be welcomed by the Mértola Museum as part of a museology internship that I’m undertaking at the University of Liège. I got to know the Museum thanks to my teacher, Manuelina Duarte Cândido, and my friend Floriane Paquay, who was an intern here last year. Passionate about the issue of development through culture, the Mértola Vila Museu project caught my interest straight away. In fact, I immediately realised that the museum occupies a unique position on the Portuguese cultural scene. Mértola is a town that is home to around 1,000 inhabitants in Alentejo, Portugal’s largest but also least populated region. No narration predicted this rural community to experience significant cultural growth. However, Serrão Martins and Cláudio Torres understood it had cultural richness. The latter interest was decisive for the development of this richness and, ultimately, for the creation of the museum.
The Mértola Museum is made up of fourteen centres, distributed not only across the town but also across the municipality. There are therefore many things to discover: I spent the first few days of my internship visiting these centres, following guided tours, to try to understand the museum’s relationship with the territory: an integrated approach to cultural development. Here, the museum is not a closed building, but a network that covers the whole town. Strolling through its streets, observing its architecture and archaeological remains, discovering its intangible heritage. In short, feeling the ‘spirit of the place’, is already part of visiting the museum. In fact, how could we imagine bringing together within four walls a heritage so diverse and so deeply linked to the development of the town? Mértola has travelled through time, from ancient times to the present day, seeing religions and cultures come and go. The traces of these occupations are still visible today in the urban fabric itself. Why not promote the town as a Museum display par excellence?
What’s more, the name ‘Mértola Vila Museu project’ emphasises the endless discovery: there are always more remains to excavate, more ideas to implement, more centres to build. This set of possibilities is the museum’s strength, but it is also its curse – how can we manage to do everything at the same time? Taking the best care of all the remains, welcoming visitors to every centre… With this internship, I was able to observe the many challenges that are faced by cultural professionals, but above all the passion they show in responding to them.
This made my internship particularly rewarding, and also because I was encouraged to demonstrate critical thinking in relation to the museum by writing a report that had to cover all its departments. Because the museum offered me a great deal of freedom during the rest of the internship, letting me fit into the departments that seemed most adequate for my training.
So I immediately felt the trust of the museum staff, as well as their amity and will to make my work more than a list of tasks to fulfil, but rather a period of discovery and exchange. In this respect, I must thank Rute Fortuna, Fernando Martins, Nélia Romba, and especially Lígia Rafael, my internship supervisor. I thank them for their patient explanations, given my sometimes insufficient knowledge of Portuguese, their warm welcome and their unfailing availability.
If it’s time to leave again, I can already imagine my next visit to Mértola. Whether as a volunteer in archaeological excavations or as a simple tourist, I know I won’t be able to resist
seeing again the course of the Guadiana lost in the morning mist, the range of hills where the sheep graze, and the silhouette of the castle abruptly appearing against the midday sun. Everyone is united by an elusive spirit, which provokes longing that call us back.’

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