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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya

What is the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya?

The Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya, or Archaeology Museum of Catalonia in English, is a museum that explores the region’s ancient history from prehistoric times up to the medieval period, housed in an early-20th-century pavilion.

Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya

Kippelboy, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya History

In 1929, the International Exhibition held in Barcelona heralded a brave new era of artistic, engineering and scientific innovation around the world. Some 20 European nations exhibited the best of their industry, art and design, as did the USA and Japan. Over the course of the year nearly six million visitors flocked to Montjuïc Hill, where the exhibition was based.

Spain’s exhibits filled ten pavilions. One of these was the Pavilion of Graphic Arts now home to the headquarters of the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya (or Archaeology Museum of Catalonia). Its design was inspired by the Italian Renaissance, particularly the architecture of Filippo Brunelleschi and Andrea Palladio. The Spanish Pavilions were all distinctly traditional compared to the Modernist designs adopted by other nations, because they were influenced by the Catalan cultural movement known as Noucentisme. A reaction against Modernism, the avant-garde and the political unrest of the period, Noucentisme posited that the ordered, balanced aesthetics of the past should be utilised to impose order on modern society. If you have the chance, visit Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich’s Bauhaus German Pavilion, which stands just west of here at the foot of Montjuïc Hill, and compare the stylistic hallmarks of the two artistic movements.

The Pavilion of Graphic Arts was only supposed to be temporary and so its construction was originally rather flimsy. Once its future as a museum was secured by the socialist government of the Second Republic, it was reinforced and refitted by the architect Josep Gudiol in 1932. During the Spanish Civil War, the newly converted museum carefully protected its exhibits by removing them from display, and either sending them abroad or sheltering them behind sandbags. Ancient mosaics that couldn’t be transported were shielded by a brick wall.

Roman sarcophagus in the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

This wonderful Renaissance-inspired building is actually one of five museums and archaeological sites that make up the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya. It explores the region’s ancient history, from prehistoric times up to the medieval period, with a permanent collection that includes a 53,000-year-old Neanderthal jaw, Iberian silverware from the 2nd century BC, and a vibrant Roman mosaic of the Three Graces, discovered at the end of the 19th century.

Montjuïc Hill has its own archaeological significance. Since the late 11th century, records mention the ‘old tombs of the Jews’, located on the western side of the hill. Historians think that Montjuïc is named after this medieval Jewish cemetery, eventually uncovered in the 19th century. The hill’s strategic position also means that it’s one of the oldest inhabited sites in Barcelona. Cartwheels, pottery and tombs from the Iberian and Roman civilisations have been uncovered. Montjuïc stone was quarried for thousands of years – from the Iberian period in the 6th century BC to the 20th century – which means that many more of its archaeological remains may have been lost.

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