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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Museu Nacional de Etnologia in Lisbon

What is the Museu Nacional de Etnologia?

The Museu Nacional de Etnologia, or National Museum of Ethnology in English, is a museum of Ethnology that was founded in 1965 and that contains over 40,000 objects from 380 different cultures.


Museu Nacional de Etnologia

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Museu Nacional de Etnologia History

Jorge Dias was born in Porto in 1907. He studied Germanic Philology in Coimbra before moving to Germany in the late 1930s. Dias was awarded a PhD in Ethnology – the study of different cultures, their customs and habits – at the height of the Second World War, in the midst of Nazi Germany. The scholar managed to leave Munich on the last plane before the Allies bombed the city; the majority of his books burned at the airport.


In 1956, Dias arrived in Lisbon to lecture in Ethnology and during his stay was involved in founding the country’s first museum dedicated to the discipline. A few years later, he mounted an exhibition on the Life and Art of the Makonde People, which ultimately led to the creation of the Museum of Overseas Ethnology in 1965. (‘Overseas’ in this context referred to Portugal’s colonies outside Europe.) Unsurprisingly, Dias served as the museum’s first director.


Since its founding, the museum has grown exponentially, now with a collection of over 40,000 objects, drawn from 380 cultures and more than 80 countries, reflecting traditions and customs worldwide.


Housed here in its purpose-built Modernist home, the museum is divided into two sections. On one side, you’ll find the exhibits collected by the team that first introduced modern anthropology to Portugal, documented by archives. The permanent exhibition, entitled ‘The Museum, Many Things’, is constructed around seven rotating themes, including Balinese shadow theatre, dolls from South-west Angola, and Portuguese folk-music instruments. The second core of the museum is formed around 11,000 objects derived from the Museum of Popular Art, gathered in the 1930s and ’40s by the autocratic Estado Novo government as vehicles for propaganda.


Occasionally, it’s possible to visit two reserve areas in the museum: the Rural Life Galleries, with collections illustrating agriculture, traditional technologies, and domestic equipment in Portuguese rural society, and the Amazon Galleries, with artefacts drawn from around 40 Amazonian peoples.


In addition, since 2007, after the transfer here of the Museum of Popular Art’s archive, the Museum of Ethnology has contained a library of Portugal’s most important documents in the areas of ethnology and anthropology.


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