The Machado de Castro National Museum in Coimbra is a new building embracing whole two millennia of history. New, not only in terms of fabric (the preexisting building was restored and there is a recently constructed wing, completed in 2012), but also in terms of approach and evaluation of all the historical layers present and the artifacts exhibited.
The story begins over fifteen years ago: in 1998, the well-known Portuguese architect Gonçalo Byrne and his team won the competition for the expansion and remodeling of the Museum. Many issues were to be addressed: how to present one of the most valuable museum collections of Portugal freshly and adequately to the requirements of the present time, how to intervene in the urban context of today’s Coimbra, how to establish relations with the previous histories that the museum site contains, how to conceive and put forward the today’s identity of the Museum.
The museum’s contemporary identity has been based exactly on exposing and acknowledging a palimpsest of the site’s previous uses and meanings: the architect himself has used the expression “juxtaposed contemporanities” to illustrate this main theme. During a visit to the Museum and discovery of its precious collections of sculpture, painting and decorative arts, one immediately perceives that the exhibition spaces are as much didactic tools as the artifacts displayed. It is through the experience of a visit that their “juxtaposed contemporaneities” and historical identities are unfolded to a guest. There are remains of an entire Roman cryptoporticus in the Museum’s lower floors and the layers of the Bishop’s palace built upon it (that was the building’s function since the Middle Ages), as well as traces of previous work for the purpose of conversion into museum.
And one of the fascinating things is that the architect did not try to correct controversial interventions done before: they were rather used as didactic elements as well, and presented as a legacy of the conservation approaches no longer used.
At all times, visitor is aware the museum’s architecture is not only meant for presenting the legacy of the past, but rather for establishing dialogue and continuity through its contemporaneity. “Every architect should act in the best way they know. Afterwards, time will tell”, says Gonçalo Byrne about the role of the contemporary intervention, making sure reversibility principle applies to all aspects of the works done, just in case.
Cited from an architect’s interview in Publico: http://www.publico.pt/temas/jornal/clarificar-dois-mil-anos-de-historia-26241240