Sunday, 8 December 2019

Plural Lisbon

The intense public debate regarding the creation of a “museum of the discoveries” has slowed down in recent months. However, it significantly and, it seems to me, irreversibly marked the discussion about the role of museums in the Portuguese society, the ways in which one can and should look into the past, the reasons why this past is preserved and researched.

Throughout this debate, the argument and accusation of "historical revisionism" or "judging the past based on moral standards of the present" have been repeatedly heard. In an article written last October, António Barreto stated: “To define good and evil by decree, to condemn history which is a hundred or a thousand years old, to legally blame historical events and apologise for far-off facts: it's stupid, but it's fashionable.” This is not only a misinterpretation of the demands made by part of our society today (and, curiously, the sources of the criticised demands are rarely cited), but an argument that always sounded absurd to me. Moreover, the claims of those who argue that one should not feel guilty about something that happened a hundred or a thousand years ago sounded inconsistent, because those same people repeatedly affirm their pride in things that also happened a hundred or a thousand years ago (read here or here or here).

Time and again, these arguments have made me wonder whether our ancestors (all of them) had seen and accepted as natural what is now seen as barbarism, whether it is the slave trade 500 years ago or the alleged acts of sexual harassment and assualt by Placido Domingo forty years ago or less. Domingos's statement that “the rules and standards by which we are - and should be - judged today are very different than they were in the past” doesn't sound so different from those that argue that slavery was not viewed as inhuman or immoral in the 16th century.

“Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910”, Museu de Lisboa - Palácio Pimenta

Yesterday, I found a possible answer to my questions on the walls of an exhibition at the Museum of Lisbon - Palácio Pimenta:

“We were the inventors of such bad treatment, never practised or heard of among humans. No human reason had been found which permits that there should ever exist in the world a public and free policy to buy and sell free and peaceful men, as if they were buying and selling beats, cattle or horses, and the like.”

This is an excerpt from the work “Art of the War of the Sea”, written in 1555 by Father Fernando Oliveira, part of the exhibition “Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910 (curated by Paulo Almeida Fernandes and Ana Paula Antunes, open until December 22 and, curiously, little or not discussed in my circle of friends and colleagues). In the same exhibition, we have the possibility to watch the video “O Atlântico dos Outros: escravatura negra no império português” (The Atlantic of Others: Black Slavery in the Portuguese Empire, a project of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation), which includes an excerpt from Gomes Eanes de Zurara's “Chronicle of Guinea”, completed in 1453:

“Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910”, Museu de Lisboa - Palácio Pimenta

“being separated (...); the sons from the fathers, and the wives from the husbands, and brothers from each other... the women held the other children in their arms, and fell upon them face down, getting wounded, with little pity for their flesh, so that they are not taken away from them!”

After all, some people in the 15th or 16th centuries had considered these practices inhuman. Their views on what was happening were not so different from today’s. And throughout this time, the victims never considered that what they were going through was “natural”. Even though, their riots and uprisings are rarely mentioned to us (it was not until 2011 that I first heard about Toussaint Louverture at the National Museum of African Art, Washington DC; and only in March this year did I first hear about the Maroons of Jamaica, at the Wilberforce House Museum, Hull).

“Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910”, Museum of Lisbon - Palácio Pimenta.
Top-down and clockwise: "Portrait of a black man", Veloso Salgado, 1887; "Tobacco holder", unknown author, 1920s; "Bust of 'Father Paulino'", Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, 1893; "The blacks of Saint  George", unknown author, 19th century; "Begging for the festival of N.S. da Atalaia", unknown artist, 1826;  "Brotherhood of Black Men in the procession of Corpus Christi",  Damantino Tojal, 1948.
Now, finally, a Portuguese museum, a city museum, the Museum of Lisbon, proposes to reflect on the role that “foreigner residents and religious minorities played in building the image of the Lisbon” and on “a city that rejected, segregated and expelled those people, but also tolerated, mingled with and integrates them”. The exhibition shares knowledge and raises necessary questions about topics that occupy the public space and are of concern to the public opinion, but that Portuguese museums in general avoid tackling. It does so consciously, with a sense of responsibility and, it seems to me, with courage.

Focusing specifically on “The Lisbon of the Africans”, slavery, working and living conditions, prejudice are not subjects to be avoided. On the contrary, the objects (coming from the museum collection and from other museums) are not only described, as they usually are, but serve to tell a story (the History), without euphemisms. In the same way and in this context, the exhibition does not avoid talking about people from Africa who, unlike those that had been enslaved, were rich and had another social status (which was the case of Dona Simoa Godinha, whose will, belonging to the archives of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lisbon, is here exhibited). At the same time, when it is not possible to exhibit objects which are relevant to this narrative, the Museum of Lisbon presents them in photographs (such as the painting “Rua Nova dos Mercadores”, which was presented “without any comment” in 2017 in the exhibition “The Global City” at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga).

“Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910”, Museum of Lisbon - Palácio Pimenta.

What part of society asks for today is not “self-flagellation,” but a fuller, more honest and courageous discussion also about the negative aspects of the past that we are so proud of, including the voices of those who, even when speaking, were largely ignored. History is always told from a certain point of view. However, it is not a sacred and untouchable book, because research does not stop, does not freeze, and the points of view are divrese and not homogeneous. This is not about “inventing a democratic past” (which was the understanding of the director ofthe Museu de Arte Antiga), but to recognise that the past was not democratic and was not respectful to all human beings, a fact that still affects the lives of thousands of citizens in this country and our relations when living together in society. Perhaps this is what is missing in the exhibition “Coexistence. Plural Lisbon. 1147-1910”: the reflection upon and consequences of the story told in our social relations today - in Lisbon and in the country -, as it happens at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. The museum may not have objects in its collection to speak about this part, but there are many citizens that could lend them, as well as offering their testimonies (the videos “Places of Memory” - here and here - produced by Culturgest under the Colonial Memories cycle, would have been a good addition). Perhaps this could be the next, much needed, step.

Wilberforce House Museum, Hull

More on this blog

More readings

António Barreto, Três museus, Público (1.9.2019)

Maria Vlachou, Para que servem os museus?, Público (21.9.2019)

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