Reflections on heritage, history and interpretation for International Archive Day

Friday 9th June 2017 was International Archive Day and during that day I was lucky enough to be spending some time in one of the most culturally rich cities in Europe: Madrid. In previous posts, I’ve spoken about the most famous cultural attraction here – the Museo del Prado – and some of the lesser-known ones such as the Museo Cerralbo and the Naval Museum. Madrid contains many archives, museums and heritage sites, all worth their weight in gold due to the enormous wealth of history contained within them. I wanted to reflect on this history in the context of some of the things I’ve seen over the past few days here in the city, and to think about the connections which these institutions forge between the past and the present.

Inside the Casa Museo Lope de Vega

The Casa Museo Lope de Vega is, as the name suggests, based around the house of the famous Spanish writer of the Golden Age. Entry is by pre-booked tour only, but the tour itself provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of the writer, bringing to the house a real sense of the lives lived within it. Our guide talked about Lope de Vega’s life as one of the most successful and prolific writers of the age – a success which enabled him to purchase the house we were standing in. As well as his professional life, we also learned of his many romantic affairs and marriages and the lives of those around him who shaped and inspired some of his works of literature.

The house was used normally right up until the 1930s when it was acquired as a museum. This has perhaps been a double-edged sword for the curators, since its continuous use has both enhanced the history of the house and diluted the features which made it personal to Lope de Vega. Some original possessions are still visible, such as items of kitchenware (repaired with iron staples, as was the custom at that time since to buy new items was more expensive) and a sewing stool belonging to one of the writer’s daughters. Other items have been brought from elsewhere to suggest what the house would have originally contained, such as books of philosophy and literature of the type which we know Lope De Vega would have read or had access to. A very similar museum exists in Valladolid to the north of Madrid dedicated to Cervantes (a contemporary, and rival, of Lope de Vega), who lived there in the early 17th century.

These types of museums are very interesting, and I think they reflect some very common features and preoccupations of cultural heritage sites, most noticeably the need to present the visitor with a cogent, logical and personal ‘story’ whilst maintaining factual integrity. Sometimes this integrity is maintained via direct contact with original objects owned by the person in question, and at other times the facts are told via an explanatory text or commentary which stands alongside a ‘mock-up’ of an original. Museum houses, as explained above, are probably the best example of the successful combination of these two approaches. Sometimes a ‘best guess’ approach is used – for example, our guide mentioned that the layout of the house had probably been changed since Lope de Vega’s time, but an educated guess could be made as to which rooms were used for different activities based on contemporary accounts and norms of the time. I think this is very important, particularly for historical figures who lived pre-19th Century, as we need this kind of direct connection to a past which is so different to our lives. In the end, it is as much about feeling as well as facts.

Sketches for the Fountain of Neptune, designed by Ventura Rodriquez, in the Museo Municipal de Madrid

In the Museo Municipal de Madrid, the meandering and interwoven threads of the history of the city are brought together in a fantastic collection which leads the visitor step-by-step without becoming bogged down in too much detail. The themes through which this historical journey is made include war, succession, politics, fashion trends, trade, industry and urban planning. Explanations about the War of Spanish Succession, which influenced the development of Madrid as a political and cultural hub, stand alongside descriptions about the emergence of urban design and the way in which it defines and projects an image of how a city wants to be perceived. It’s fascinating to walk around this museum and see the Madrid of today unfold before your eyes. Particularly striking is the section on the ‘enlightened monarch’ Charles III, who was most instrumental in creating a forward-looking city of science, art and learning through great building projects such as the Botanic Gardens, Astronomical Observatory, and the building that is today the Prado Museum. This sudden expansion of enlightenment architecture in some ways also reflected Spain’s birth as a modern nation in its own right.

Although I’ve been talking primarily about museums in this post, I think that many of these concerns apply equally to archives. Archives are huge repositories of history, and their preservation is of utmost importance. Yet, without a way of arranging the archives and making them discoverable and coherent, there can be no interpretation of that history – it remains a huge mass of information where what is needed is meaning. Just as a museum object’s meaning is enhanced by an explanatory text, so is an archive document’s meaning enhanced by its relationship to other documents. How that relationship is discovered and conveyed is the main work of the archivist and curator and is what makes history come alive. On International Archive Day we get a glimpse behind the scenes into how this all happens!

I also visited some other heritage sites whilst on my recent travels in Spain, so look out for some more posts coming up soon!



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