This exhibition is proposing an incursion into the founding of the Museum Carlos Machado, specifically regarding its incipient forms of display - as they are visible in a series of historic photographies. These images, which belong to the archive of the museum, are reproduced in this booklet and have accompanied the production of the works and the making of the exhibition.
This is the first show in the larger research and curatorial project EXODUS STATIONS - which is inviting contemporary artists to work with ethnological collections. After a residency period in the archives of some European museums, the artists elaborate a critical and interpretative view on the history of the objects and the meanings with which they have been invested according to fluctuating ideologies. Strategies of self-representation of the institution, of the collectors and founding histories are especially under focus.
In this current show, we take as a point of departure some of the first photographies that document the museum Carlos Machado's collections (dating from 1903, 1944 and he 1960s) including the representation of the initial display (1903) even before the museum opened in its current location in 1930.
The project turns around issues of representation related to museology – in other words on systems of display of information and their cultural and philosophical significance at different moments in historic time – as they result from the collections of images presented here. In this way we can observe along these images how display changed with the changing mentality and the shifting scientific awareness of cultural difference.
These remarkable first images of the collections shot in 1903 are signed by Francisco Afonso Chaves (1857-1926), an Azorean scientist, meteorologist and photographer who had major contribution at the founding of the Museum. As in the other EXODUS STATIONS projects we are interested rather in the level of representation of the ethnologic objects, than in the material presence of the objects themselves. The three artists were invited to interpret these photographies in respect to display politics, the status and value given to the objects in that epoch, - as we can deduce them from these images – the circulation of cultural symbols and their classification according to disciplines. Observing in these images how information and the museologic objects are organised in space and how this exhibition space is photographed, one can think about the differentiated importance which is given to regional and colonial ethnology, natural history, art.
The artists create around this body of images a meta-discourse in which the historic photographies and the presence of today's museum in the Convent of St. Andre are distilled and augmented by associations connected to their subjective heritage of material culture, to a personal methodology of display of information and according to their individual critical paradigms.
This small text intends to span a relation between these images which date from 1903, 1944 and the 1960s (exact date unknown) and a text written in 1944 by Dr. Luís Bernardo Leite Athayde, one of its directors, and which represents a formulation of the museologic program, a sort of Manifesto of intent.
The Museum of Azores (Museu Açoreano) was created by Carlos Machado in 1876 and opened to the public in 18801. It was located in a high school and housed collections of zoology, botanics, geology and mineralogy, and its scope was most probably educational, as an accompaniment of the scholar program. In 1914 it was associated to the city council and became a public museum. Its second director, the scientist Francisco Afonso de Chaves, who started for the first time to document the collections and whose photographies are included in this publication, introduced the museum into the interests of the scientific community, due to what were considered remarkable natural science collections. At this time, the museum was still conceived in the 19th century spirit of the 'cabinets of curiosity', in which mixed material was associated not according to disciplines but probably based on its rarity and outstanding qualities. At the same time, as has been commented, Darwin's theory brought an attention to the flora and fauna of isolated islands, which were supposed to have preserved anterior stages in the evolution of species.
However, the museum was including from an early date also African objects. At this time Azores was an important station in the colonial trade routes, as it had a strategic position in the middle of the ocean. Navy generals were often changing posts at different locations during their lifetime and accumulated objects from various regions of the colonial empire. Some of these collections were deposited on the islands of the Archipelago and were initially in private property.
After the museum changed its educational role and opened as a public museum, in 1893, the count Fonte Bela donated to the museum some African collections, that were in his custody. This donation was followed by others, which were simply integrated into the existing natural history collections, generating a mix of material, specific to the 'cabinet of curiosity' type of collecting and to the scientific vision of the time. In the images included here and dated 1903, we can see precisely this mix of material.
As we can read in the history of the museum2, in 1912, Dr. Luís Bernardo Leite Athayde proposed the creation of an Art Section inside the Museum. This was meant to protect Azorean works of art from disappearance – he writes in his 1944 publication3. By affirming and exhibiting these works of art and acquiring additional Portuguese and foreign pieces for the museum, he was consciously situating the Azorean culture into a European (if not universal) patrimony of value. These movements were corresponding to a developing national consciousness, typical for the beginning of the 20th century.
In the period 1930-1940, with the growing regionalist spirit, Luís Bernardo Leite Athayde, initiated intensive collecting campaigns of regional ethnography, aiming to reveal the life and culture of the island.
In 1930 the disparate collections were all moved together into the Convent of Santo André which was a former monastery of enclosed nuns, whose order became extinct with the progressive secularisation. The collections of Sacred Art and Monastic Ethnography became in this new location (the current site of this exhibition) of preponderant importance.
This is the moment in the timeline of the museum, where we would like to stop reflecting on the text of Dr. Luís Bernardo Leite Athayde written in 1944, as a sort of curatorial program for the Museum in its new location, where collections started for the first time to be separated on disciplines and set in respective exhibition spaces.
Our current exhibition is situated in the CORO ALTO, the upper Choir of the Santo Andre Convent – the space that can be seen in one of the following images dated in the 1960s. In 1944 this space was meant to exhibit its own religious history, which started to be regarded from a scientific point of view and understood as a cultural contribution to the Azorean heritage. In 1944, as we can read in de Athaide's decsription (pg. 25), the CORO ALTO was housing 'fine images of the 17th and 18th century, placed between national and oriental porcelains, always decorated with flowers. Close to the cast iron grid of a notable artistic value: the musical instruments – the organ, the horns, the harpsicord, the spinets and the violins.'
Thinking back to the 1903 photographs, it becomes visible that in 1903 African ethnology was still included into the discipline of natural history. We can see here an undifferentiated display, in which African objects are mixed with natural historic curiosities, monstrosities, stuffed animals, fishes, tools. This mixed display in which African objects are not regarded as 'art' or as autonomous cultural objects, but are associated to natural history, manifests the colonial and imperial world view of the time.
In the images extracted from Dr. Luís Bernardo Leite Athayde's publication and reproduced here (dated 1944), we can see that natural historic material was still treated in a completely different way than art, tiles and religious sculpture – which are not only grouped as belonging to the same category of art, but also show another conception of display. Artistic material is exhibited in a clear, structured way that sets the accent on the individual piece and on its singularity. On the contrary ethnographic display (which presents a fisherman in his boat, surrounded by tools), seems here already separated from zoologic items (as was the case in the images from 1903), but the display is cumulative, scenographic and undifferentiated. At this time the African ethnology collection, stopped being displayed altogether and was kept in the reserves.
Later images from the 1960s show an even more elaborated display in the art section, which was reproducing the conventions of display typical for an 'European' art collection. We can sense in the 1944 images and in the text of de Athayde that a clear distinction already exists between high and low art – regional ethnography belonging to a lower form of art, while secular art and religious art (including decorative objects) were valued as higher forms of art. African ethnology, on the contrary, lost its importance in the face of the growing weight of regional ethnology and is actually not displayed until today.
While in 1903 African ethnology is associated with natural history, in 1944 regional ethnology is considered more close to cultural heritage, in the spirit of a growing consciences of appurtenance to a European Cultural Heritage. But at the same time the urgency to 'save' these cultural forms is stated in order to prevent their contamination with 'foreign influences' (pg. 27). This started to be promoted on the Island through the constitution of the Art Section in the Museum already in 1912.
As we can read in de Athaide's publication, the aim of the founding of the museum was most of all the development of a patriotic sentiment (pg. 24). The author writes : 'Besides being a dissonant note as they have nothing to do with the regional ethnology, the African ethnologic collections, deserve to be presented, not only for the respect of for the memory of those that offered them, but mostly as they originate in regions that are part of our Colonial Empire, therefore are also Portuguese'. (pg. 32). From the text and the images it becomes obvious that African collections are separated from the other ethnologic collections, probably as a reminiscence of the same tradition that is visible in the 1903 photographies, where African ethnography is associated to natural history. In 1944 African ethnography is considered a scientific material of a second degree from the point of view of cultural significance, and it is also not quoted among the most important collections, which are named to be: religious art, conventual ethnography and religious art (pg. 16).
Marta Jecu, July 2017
1The following historic information is taken from the official page of the museum: http://museucarlosmachado.azores.gov.pt/museu/historia.aspx
3 Louis Bernardo Leite de ATHAIDE, As Seccoes de Arte e Etnografia do Museu de Ponta Delogada, Of Artes Graficas, Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Azores, 1944