Literary Museums in Portugal

Rita Baleiro (ESGHT, University of the Algarve, CiTUR, Portugal)

In the genealogy of museums, literary museums are the museological genre committed to acquiring, preserving and communicating literary art through museographical codes to foster knowledge about literature and the role of literature role in society (International Committee for Literary and Composers Museums, 2019). Although no comprehensive compiled list of literary museums exists, there are hundreds worldwide (Prottas, 2020; MacLeod, 2021). In Portugal, there are 31 literary museums (Baleiro, 2023a). In contrast to most European countries, where the first literary museums date back to the 1600s and 1700s, in Portugal, the first literary museum opened in 1922 (i.e., the Camilo Castelo Branco House Museum). Most museums (i.e., 27) opened after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which ended the authoritarian government under Salazar’s Estado Novo and produced significant social, economic, demographic and political changes in Portugal (Gouveia, 1985: 149). Most museums, however, did not open immediately after the 1974 revolution (only one did, in fact, the José Régio House in 1975) because of the political unrest and successive Provisional Governments, which resulted in few consistent measures in favour of valorising the tangible cultural heritage, especially that of artistic and museological value (Brigola, 2011). The museographical panorama changed in the 1980s and 1990s, namely after Portugal joined the European Economic Community in 1986 and established the Ministry of Culture in the 1990s. However, it was in the 2010s that most literary museums opened (Baleiro, 2023b). The majority of Portuguese literary museums are writers’ home museums. They are “domestic spaces converted into public equipment” (Ponte, 2008: 49) to celebrate and communicate the biography and work of an author. As there is no established categorisation of writers’ home museums, in this dictionary entry, we adapt the Butcher-Younghans’ threefold taxonomy of historic house museums (“documentary”, “representative”, and “aesthetic”) as they share attributes with literary museums. At this point, it is essential to highlight that the different categories of literary museums should not be understood as hermetic, as one same museum may bear features of more than one category (e.g., the Fialho de Almeida House literary museum is classified as a “representative” literary museum, because it reproduces the author’s lifestyle and time using more replicas than original pieces, but it also houses ethnographic exhibitions about life in that region, as “commemorative” literary museums often do). However, regardless of their shape and category, literary museums document and celebrate literature and writers, house collections of books, manuscripts, tools of the literary writing trade, photographs, videos, personal effects, period objects, or replicas of such items. Many also house research centres, libraries, and non-permanent exhibitions, and they may also be a venue for artist residencies, workshops and conferences.

The first category in Butcher-Younghans’ threefold taxonomy is the “documentary” historic house. After transferring this concept to literary museums, this category refers to museums which are often located in former residences of the writer, and they are a kind of biographical monument and testimony to the time and place of the writers. These museums display a layout closer to the original domestic setting and many authentic objects of the authors. The second category (the “representative” literary museums) reproduces the author’s lifestyle and time, with fewer actual objects and more replicas. In Portugal, they may also take the label of “memory houses”. In this category of literary museums, domestic settings are staged, often using replicas of the originals or items that did not belong to the author but were produced during the period when the author lived. The last category is the “aesthetic” literary museums. This category is closer to the definition of regional or art museums where private collections are exhibited. Although they are sometimes housed in a former author’s dwelling, the highlight is the author’s art collections or ethnography. Their intent is not to illustrate the writer’s “theatre of life” as “documentary” or “representative” museums do.

In Portugal, there are three other types of literary museums that the Butcher-Younghans’ taxonomy does not contemplate. The first is the “foundation” literary museum, which has a specific financial status and private management. Sometimes installed in former houses of the writer or the writer’s family (e.g., Aquilino Ribeiro’s foundation and Tormes House), these museums may also stage the domestic setting and display personal objects and book collections. However, another Portuguese foundation literary museum (i.e., the Saramago Foundation) is installed in a historic building with no relation to the writer’s life. This museum has recreated the author’s studio and has a book and souvenir shop. However, recalling what we stated initially, the literary museum categories are permeable and may bear attributes from other literary museums. The second category might be named the “library” literary museums, as they play a critical role as research and documentation centres, although they may hold small exhibitions of the author’s personal effects and books. The last category is the “national” literary museums, which celebrate the country’s literature and literary history. In this last category, there is no reproduction of domestic settings. Up to now, there is only one example of this museum category in Portugal: The Literary Tower, which extends over four floors and fourteen rooms and displays the history and authors of Portuguese literature from the fifteenth century onwards. Table 1 shows a taxonomy proposal of the Portuguese literary museums and their numbers up to June 2023.

Table 1: A taxonomy proposal of Portuguese literary museums

Most Portuguese literary museums are situated in the north of Portugal; most opened in the second decade of the twentieth-first century, and the municipalities manage most of them. The vast majority celebrate male writers, and their designations are usually “house museum”, “museum”, and “house”. The most recent literary museums bear other names (e.g., “space” and “literary tower”). This option might demonstrate an attempt to depart from the most traditional term “museum” and a reflection of the identity crisis some museums are experiencing as they cannot compete with other tourist attractions that privilege experience, immediacy, “and what the industry calls adventure” (Gimblett, 1998: 7). Following Gimblett’s (1998: 7) definition of heritage as “a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past”, literary museums should highlight their role of displaying heritage as a second life to literary production and authors, which is definitely a via to understanding and learning about these authors, their work and their time.

In Portugal, there are still no museums about children’s literature, specific literary characters, a particular literary work, or a literary genre. Museums of regional literature are also absent. Therefore, there is a need to expand the number of literary museums as they play a crucial role in valuing the uniqueness of the Portuguese literary heritage, and they are a venue to access the “facts behind the fiction” (Robinson, 2002: 63).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Baleiro, R. (2023). Literary museums in Portugal. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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