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Macao museums

Sat, 17th Apr 2010
Macao boasts an impressive number of museums which showcase a wide variety of subjects for all those interested in a comprehensive overview of Macao’s history. (April 2010)

It wasn’t always like this. In the late 1980s Macao only had the Luís de Camões Museum, then located in the Casa Garden next door to the garden named after Portugal’s greatest poet. It was managed by the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (former Leal Senado) and famous for its refined and valuable collection of Chinese ceramics and paintings by George Chinnery and his disciple Lam Qua, two of the most important artists of the China Trade school.
Macao’s museums took a quantitative and qualitative leap forward when the countdown began for the enclave’s return to the People’s Republic of China.
The former Portuguese administration of Macao then began a process of opening spaces dedicated to the historic memory, to promote a collective conscience built on recollections of a common past.
In the post-1999 period Macao witnessed the opening of seven new museums, six on the peninsula and another on Taipa Island.
The museums which opened in this period (Tea Culture House, Macao Handover Gifts Museum, Museum of Taipa and Coloane History, and more recently the Macao Science Center, among others) are a diverse group that offers a path to knowledge and learning in various categories.

Economic and political opportunity

Macao indeed boasts an excellent number of museums with topics for all tastes.
The territory is justifiably proud of the notable work carried out by the multidisciplinary teams of architects, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, archivists, artists and social and cultural figures who conceived the museums, an effort only made possible by Macao’s propitious economic conditions in recent years.
It is undeniable that the existence of an enviable group of museums in this small territory is closely tied to Macao’s economic development over the last 30 years.
Macao’s museums are today an important part of the region’s tourism strategy, especially because they are an alternative to the gaming segment. They also work as a complement to the city’s UNESCO world heritage sites.

The museum of museums

The story began in 1879 when the Coimbra University Botanic Garden requested that various items be shipped to Portugal, namely some of the most common products found in Macao’s markets.
This beginning ironically symbolised an outflow of heritage, rather than the contrary. The episode was repeated when Lisbon requisitioned items linked to fishing and vessels from Macao and Timor to be put on show in Portugal’s pavilion at the 1900 Paris World Fair. The aim was to affirm a country’s place on the international scene and its presence on various continents. In any case, the articles only returned to Macao after the Maritime and Fishing Museum opened in 1919, with the addition of some items collected in the meantime by the assistant to Artur Leonel Barbosa Carmona, then director of Macao’s port authorities.
Eight years later this museum merged with the Luis de Camões Commercial and Ethnographic Museum. In 1934 it once again became autono-mous, remaining so until the beginning of the Pacific War, which also marked the end of an era in Macao.
For more than half of the 20th century Macao only counted the Luís de Camões Museum, initially installed in the Leal Senado building in the city centre in 1927. But for various reasons the museum moved several times, from the ground floor of the Santa Casa da Misericordia (the Holy House of Mercy) charity institution, to an annex of the Flora Garden, and temporary quarters in the Santa Sancha Palace (official residence of the Portuguese governors), Bela Vista building (current residence of Portugal’s consul-general in Macao) and offices of the Economic Services. Stability was only achieved from the 1950s to the 1980s in the Casa Garden building, when its curators were well known local cultural figures such as Luís Gonzaga Gomes and António Conceição Júnior.
One of its first directors had been Manuel Silva Mendes, an acknowledged expert and collector of Oriental art who earned renown for putting together a valuable collection of Chinese articles, mainly porcelain and jade, thereby augmenting the wealth of the Luís de Camões Museum.

To celebrate the sea, obviously

The Macao Maritime Museum opened its doors on 24 June 1990, the date previously celebrated as the Day of the City of Macao and its patron, St John the Baptist. In every aspect it represents a turning point in Macao’s approach to what a museum should be.
As a legitimate heir to the former Maritime and Fishing Museum, open from 1920 to 1945, the new space celebrating the sea and the Macao population’s strong bond with the waters of the South China Sea is located on the emblematic and historic Barra Pagoda square. Here local fishermen have venerated the goddess A-Ma for more than 500 years.
The Maritime Museum was purpose-built and is currently one of Macao’s most popular exhibition spaces. It was commissioned by the port authorities to the architect Bonina Moreno (also designer of the Macao Museum) and is situated on the bank of the Pearl River at the entrance to the Inner Harbour.
Right at the entrance visitors learn that that the sea has been omnipresent in the history of China, Portugal and Macao. The tour is arranged in a series of spaces where two decades ago the best available technology was installed to offer visitors an interactive experience which became a formula for success and was later used in other museums.
The ground floor is where the philosophy underpinning the museum is immediately evident in the exhibition of the costumes and lifestyles of Macao’s fishermen, the vessels they use, various instruments and techniques, including models of houses. It uses sound and image supports to explain a way of life that largely lives on today in the Macao Maritime Museum, which seeks to accurately portray a bygone era that now only exists in the memory of the territory’s oldest residents.
The upper gallery contains a valuable set of 14 models of Portuguese traditional vessels, while the entire first floor is dedicated to the maritime feats of two powers: Portugal through its 15th and 16th century discoveries, with a special focus on the ships used for trade between Goa, Macao and Japan; and the prowess of Admiral Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty (15th century), when at the head of a powerful fleet he voyaged to India, Arabia and East Africa, planting the seeds which later rose to become centres of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. The Macao Maritime Museum thereby reminds us that it was the sea which brought these two people into contact.
The museum is completed by a section dedicated to maritime technology and transportation, with models of vessels in service or which once navigated in these waters, as well as a gallery of aquariums meant to showcase various ecosystems (river, port, corals, shipwrecks). Before heading down to the terrace and its privileged view of the A-Ma Temple and the Pearl River, visitors pass the pennants of junks representing all the cities and fishing towns with which Macao has maintained contact, from as far away as Sichuan Province.

Macao is on the Monte

The Maritime Museum may well represent the new generation of museums in the territory, conceived from the ground up with neither original building nor collection or archives, but inaugurating a new relationship with the public and showing another way to present knowledge by giving up static presentation in favour of a more interactive approach. The Macao Museum was born in a similar manner, but is already on another level.
This museum was conceived similarly to its older counterpart. It is located on the symbolic Monte Hill and in its Fortress. In the 16th and 17th centuries this was the city’s cultural centre, for it was here, next door to St Paul’s Church and College (of which only the stone façade remains), that the first university of the Far East was born. It seeks to project the idea of a collective identity  that is preserved and displayed to residents and visitors alike.
Since its doors opened on 18 April 1998, shortly before Macao’s handover to the PRC, the Macao Museum has amply reflected the care of the team which conceived it, showcasing the importance of Macao’s historic and social context and the need to convey in a multipurpose and multicultural space an atmosphere of tolerance and openness.
More than any other space in the city, the Macao Museum provides a transparent look at how this society presents itself.  The focus is at the same time on memory, particularly in the micro-world exhibits (the Macanese community and its habits, the Chinese community and its customs), and on the difficult task of building it on top of Monte Hill.
The quality of the Macao Museum’s collection and its elaborate arrangement cannot be overly emphasised, for above all this institution transmits a strong message regarding the importance of Macao yesterday and today, and the qualities enabling it to look ahead to tomorrow.
It consists of three storeys, bringing to mind an archaeological site, though contrariwise, digging up through various sediment layers to reach the surface, i.e., the present period. The trip is not just symbolic. Visitors begin their tour on the floor dug into Monte Hill. From then on it’s all uphill until the level of the Fortress and its spellbinding views over the city below.
Macao’s genesis marks the meeting of two separate worlds before it became an “entrepôt” between East and West, built on the inherent opportunities of this new relationship between two civilisations.
Folk Arts and Traditions of Macao is the name of what is perhaps the museum’s most successful gallery. It contains myriad samples from pastimes, routines, rites and celebrations of a multicultural society – to the delight of generations who still recognise them and the surprise and astonishment of the rest. It is a  Macao arranged and presented very appealingly. For example, visitors can listen to the standard cries of various 20th century vendors. It’s a nostalgic echo, which is barely heard along the Macao Museum’s walls.

An icon of modern Macao

The Macao Museum of Art (MAM) belongs to an entirely different sphere. Located in the Macao Cultural Centre complex, it covers an area of 10,192 square metres, of which 4,000 are exhibition space. The MAM was inaugurated on 19 March 1999 and is the region’s biggest space devoted to promoting fine arts.
The MAM received a large part of the collection of the old Luis de Camões Museum, but has since expanded its holdings and is now a showcase for modernity in the fine arts world.
Its five floors and as many galleries contain exhibitions which are permanent, like the ones on Chinese calligraphy and painting and Chinese ceramics (with a notable collection from the Shiwan school) on the fourth floor, and a Historic Painting gallery, which exhibits paintings by Chinese and Western artists of Macao and the southern Chinese coasts in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The MAM has earned various international prizes for the quality of its posters and has brought to the region world level exhibitions such as the “Picasso Engravings” and “Memories of the Past – Pre-Hispanic Mexican Art”. It also uses its valuable collection to promote exhibitions whose theme is always Macao, enhancing its identity, such as “Macao, Revealed Memories (photographs from the 1920s and 30s)” and “Serene Space – Photographs about Macao”.
The Museum also contains a media library with free Internet service and audiovisual booths where more than 500 Chinese and Western film classics can be watched, also for free. An auditorium and playroom used for children’s art courses complete the facilities of this modern museum – one of the most visited in Macao.

Museums for a new era

The Macao Handover Gifts Museum’s location is very symbolic.
This is precisely where the handover ceremony took place in the early morning hours of 20 December 1999, in the then Transition Pavilion.
It opened its doors in December 2004 during the Macao Special Administrative Region’s (MSAR) fifth anniversary celebrations and its three floors recall one of the most significant moments in modern Macao’s history.
The first floor is for administration and reception, while the second has a nobler function, housing gifts from the Peoples Republic of China’s State Council and all the country’s provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, as well as from the neighbouring Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The gifts reflect the national artistic styles of the country’s 56 ethnic groups, who thus sought to extend their best wishes for Macao’s return to China and the prosperity of its population.

Ending one cycle...

In the same line of conception are other museums such as the Lin Zexu Memorial Museum of Macao.
Located next to the Lin Fong Temple, it commemorates the visit to Macao by imperial commissioner Lin Zexu on 3 September 1839 during the reign of Emperor Daoguang. He came to make sure the Portuguese authorities in Macao were enforcing the ban on opium trading, during a time of great instability which culminated in the Opium War between China and Great Britain.
Located at the foot of Mong Ha Hill, this small museum also provides an excellent opportunity to visit the Lin Fong Temple, an excellent example of Chinese architecture.

... and beginning another

The Macao Tea Culture House opened on 1 June 2005 and focuses on promoting both the MSAR’s collective consciousness and its close cultural and historical ties with China.
The museum reproduces a residence of the Lou Lim Ioc garden complex, named after one of the Chinese community’s most important 19th and early 20th century figures and is one of the most outstanding examples of Chinese architecture in the territory. The place reminds visitors that tea and its cultivation played an important role in Chinese traditional culture and in the country’s modern history. The small and appealing museum is run by the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau and describes how Macao was the first window through which China’s tea culture spread to the West, paving the way for worldwide tea cultivation and consumption.
Since its opening, the Macao Tea Culture House has served as a venue for various temporary exhibitions, seminars and presentations, always with tea as the main subject matter.
One of the features making this museum dedicated to tea worth a visit is its location – the Lou Lim Ioc Garden – with its pretty central pavilion with a view to the pond, the 100-step corridor and also the museum building itself.
It was designed by the architect Carlos Marreiros and combines predominantly Western lines with a Chinese ceramic tile roof, endowing the whole structure with a balance so typical of Macao.

A ‘pawn ticket’ for future generations

The museum we’ll talk about next is something different. The urban area where it is situated is by itself a huge museum which still has a life of its own and a very special way of experiencing the city. It is the Tak Seng On (Virtue and Success) Pawnshop, midway down the mythic Avenida Almeida Ribeiro in the heart of downtown Macao. It is yet another example of the many Macao museums which are literally surrounded by history.
This avenue was the main artery of Macao’s urban grid during most of the 20th century and was the stage for many important events in its history.
This iconic part of the city was recently enriched by the opening of the Tak Seng On Pawnshop Museum. Its architecture, decoration and furniture are extremely well preserved and identical overall to those typical of houses from the first two decades of the 20th century. Indeed, the rich merchant Kou Ho Ning opened Tak Seng On back in the year 1917.
Visitors come away with a very real idea of how pawnshops operated at a time when Avenida Almeida Ribeiro housed the few casinos then open in Macao. Such establishments offered an immediate solution for gamblers and other customers urgently in need of cash.
Pawnbroking has more than 1,500 years of history in China and in Macao. It was divided into three categories: Tong, which provided maximum loans for pawns within a three-year period at low interest; On, within a two-year period and at higher interest; and finally Ngat, for low-value pawns, within short periods ranging from four months to one year and at very high interest.
One of the most notable features of the Tak Seng On Pawnshop is its austere and impeccably preserved tower whose façade is marked by small windows. Still majestic, this sturdy seven-floor edifice was used to store inventory and is separated from the pawnshop by a corridor. It was designed to impart confidence to customers who pawned their valuables. The thick brick walls, granite foundations and interior steel sheet finishing are evidence of that intention. Each floor has four barred window-holes; the “sui generis” construction was fully capable of dealing with fires, floods, robberies and other acts of banditry.
Nowadays traditional pawnshops are just reminders of the past. Yet they represent a part of Macao’s heritage, and for this reason the Cultural Affairs Bureau saw fit to restore this one. Another factor was that the building had maintained its original profile and features, which led the MSAR government to decide that the region’s participation in the 2010 Shanghai World Fair would include a replica of the Tak Seng On Pawnshop.

A path of faith

One of the Pawnshop’s advantages is its location in the unique atmosphere of Avenida Almeida Ribeiro – a museum of sorts in a larger museum.
The idea of adding museums to Macao’s historic centre in harmony with the existing historic and architectural fabric was put forward during the last decade of the transition and involved a pedestrian zone from the Senado Square to the Ruins of St Paul’s Church, lined with outstanding buildings of historic and heritage interest.
In an area measuring less than one square kilometre containing four Catholic churches (the Cathedral and the churches of St Augustine, St Dominic and the St. Paul although only the notable façade remains of the latter – one of the territory’s most well known landmarks), three museums have opened, focusing on topics linked to the broad role of the Catholic Church, its oldest diocese in the Far East and its legacy since the 16th century.
Most symbolic of all, with enormous historic significance, is the Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt, though it is actually the simplest. Built in the lower part of the interior of the Ruins of St Paul’s Church, it evokes the rich history of missionary activity in this region and its importance in spreading the Christian faith, of which the Church and College of St Paul’s were once the prime example.
A crypt was built in the main chapel of the St.Paul Church also known has Church of Mother of God; the side walls exhibit the relics of the Martyrs of Japan and Vietnam. The room next to the sacred area contains the Museum of Sacred Art, with a number of valuable items from the 16th to 19th centuries, among them crucifixes, liturgical implements and paintings. A St Michael Archangel painted by a Japanese artist guided by the Italian master Giovanni Niccollo was the only item saved from the 1835 fire that destroyed the church.
Visitors who descend the imposing staircase leading from the Ruins of St Paul’s Church follow the streets until St Dominic’s Square, which still contains the elegant church built by Portuguese missionaries from that religious congregation, almost all that remains from a complex which once included a monastery. The building is in the colonial baroque style with oriental influences, making it unique in the city.
After visiting the church, visitors should enter a still standing part of the 18th century monastery’s cloister which houses the Sacred Art Treasure of St Dominic’s Church, open since 1997, an excellent collection which owes its existence to the 1834 decision to abolish religious orders in Portugal. The best artefacts from Macao’s many churches and monasteries were then brought here. Some 300 items are on show, including jewellery, images, vestments, paintings and objects of worship, most of them produced in Macao and other parts of Asia, such as India. Overall it provides a very broad understanding of the atmosphere of Catholic missions in China.
A few steps away from the St Dominic’s Church is the Holy House of Mercy, which also contains a museum exhibiting representative items from the charity institution founded in 1569 by Macao’s first bishop, Dom Melchior Carneiro, as well as sacred art objects.

Houses with history

As part of the policy to preserve Macao’s architectural heritage while giving it a more utilitarian and cultural aspect, visitors can also learn how Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, lived when he was a Macao resident in the first decade of the 20th century, practising medicine at Kiang Wu Hospital. And they can find out how the Portuguese and Macanese lived in the first quarter of the last century at the Taipa Houses-Museum.
The Sun Yat Sen Memorial House’s lines have a very strong Arab influence. It is quite close to the Tea Culture House and the Lou Lim Ioc Garden and contains a document collection and permanent photography exhibition which shed light on the short but significant stay in Macao of modern China’s founding father. At the time, he was fleeing from imperial mandarins and sought to encourage his supporters to establish a new regime in China. In Macao he was supported by a number of friends who were well-known and influential figures in the city’s social and political life.

Museums outdoors

Visitors to the island of Taipa should not miss a chance to visit the Taipa Houses-Museum, where in bygone days one could bathe in the small bay formed by the Pearl River just in front.
Part of a landscaped complex that includes the church of Our Lady of Carmel, a library and adjacent gardens, the green-toned Houses Museum is a rare example of Portuguese-origin Macanese architecture and is considered a part of the islands’ cultural heritage.
The houses were built in 1921 for families of ranking civil servants and in December 1999 were transformed into eight distinct museums, including the Macanese House, Islands House, Portuguese Regions House, Exhibitions House and Receptions House. They are all currently administered by the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau.
The Macanese House without a shadow of doubt requires the longest visit. Here, visitors learn how Macanese families lived in former times. The furniture, objects and decorations characteristic of the early 20th century come from houses once inhabited by Macao residents or are faithful replicas.

From the Neolithic to the present

The Museum of Taipa and Coloane History is located in the former Islands Municipal Council building, a neo-classical edifice typical of some Macao architecture in the first half of the 20th century.
Its area of 638 square metres includes a vast collection of objects primarily focusing on history. Notable are the prehistoric articles unearthed on Coloane and beneath the museum building itself, which give an idea of what Macao was like during the Neolithic period more than 6,000 years ago, with items of pottery and fishing implements. It also contains artefacts from the early middle Stone Age (about 4,000 B.C.), most of them unearthed on Hac Sa beach from 1972 to 1985.
The museum has nine exhibition rooms. The first two focus on the most remote eras, while the other seven offer a more anthropological approach and describe the territorial changes affecting Taipa and Coloane islands, their culture and traditions, religion, architecture and handicrafts, as well as the islands’ economy during the more recent past (fishing, matches and fireworks). Visitors may also tour the most important rooms once used by the former municipal authority.

A tourist attraction

From a different standpoint,  the early 1990s saw the creation of the Grand Prix Museum – the biggest tourism/sports attraction of Macao for more than half a century – and the Wine Museum. Both are located in the same building, the Tourism Activities Centre.
The Grand Prix Museum describes the history of car race on the Macao city streets since 1954 and exhibits a stunning collection of racing cars and motorcycles, many of them extremely rare.
The museum was renovated for the Macao GP’s 50th anniversary, adding a room solely dedicated to the organisers and drivers who have helped make this the most famous auto race in the Orient.
The Wine Museum is right next door. It has three separate spaces: Historic Information, Wine-Cellar and Exhibition Hall. It displays 1,115 brands of wine (756 commercial wines and 359 collection ones) from all regions of Portugal. Of course, one of its attractions is a round of wine tasting, whose cost is included in the entrance fee.

Institutional museums

Two public museums tell the history of the institutions that keep law and order in Macao: the Security Forces and Fire Service Museums.
The Fire Service Museum is itself a museum piece, built in 1920 and with the ochre outer wall so typical of that era. It recounts the history of the so-called peace soldiers, with an extensive collection of more than 700 items on show in two halls measuring more than 350 square metres.
The atrium of the Public Security Forces Affairs Bureau (in what was a Franciscan monastery in the 19th century) houses a small museum exhibiting cannons, pistols, communications equipment and other items used by security forces and soldiers – showcasing the role played by the military and police in Macao’s history over the centuries. The museum connects directly with the St Francis Garden and the city centre.

It’s important to experiment

Macao had a wide variety of museums, yet something was still missing – one specifically focusing on science. To plug this gap in a place where museums generally focused on humanistic disciplines, two responses rather than one were conceived and have taken two different themes.
After several years of construction, the Communications Museum opened to the public on 1st March 2006. It was presented as the first “predominantly interactive” museum in Macao, with the motto of “dare to experiment, dare to discover”.
Divided into separate areas, one for Postal and Philately and the other for Telecommunications, it was designed to serve the general public, but especially primary and secondary school students. Here, the idea is to provide an interactive understanding of scientific knowledge, by encouraging visitors to discover, experiment and develop their capacities. Indeed, at the Communications Museum visitors are welcome to try their hand at just about everything.
The museum’s three floors are located on Estrada Dona Maria II in the northern part of Macao, where visitors can experiment in the areas of electromagnetism and electrostatics (which raises hair on end), and continuous and alternating current. Other items on show include telephones, broadcasting, information processing and analogue and digital electronic technology equipment – all of which help make the learning process enjoyable for everyone.
The Postal and Philately area is more conventional, but still worth a visit, as it includes rare and precious samples linked to the Macao Post Office (Macao Post), as well as valuable and often unique stamps and other mail-related items.

An icon for new times

Macao’s most recent museum is the Macao Science Center, featured on the cover of the first issue of MACAO magazine. It opened during  Macao 10th anniversary celebrations and is meant to be an icon of the new period marked by extensive economic development.
Designed by the famous architect I.M. Pei, it is located at the end of an axis in a prestigious area of Macao and aims to celebrate the territory’s return to the Motherland.
The axis begins on Lotus Flower Square and passes the Macao Handover Gifts Museum. As a complement to the Cultural Centre and Macao Museum of Art (MAM), the Science Centre aims to be a milestone in the history of the region’s museums.
It was conceived to have three functions: dissemination of science in the Exhibition Centre; contact with the future in the Planetarium; and a new Conference Centre augmenting Macao’s capacity to offer top quality spaces in the convention and incentives area (MICE).
The Exhibition Centre is the main part, with 14 galleries able to house 450 interactive items, offering visitors an in-depth look at various sciences. It includes galleries devoted to Space Science, Leisure, Science for Young People, the Fast Train for Science, Robots, Scientific Exploration, Earth, Weather, Recycling, Sports and Health, Competitive Sports and Food, as well as two galleries for temporary themes.
The Centre’s second attraction is a Planetarium using the latest technology. It boasts a dome-shaped screen with a diameter of 15 metres and a high-definition 3-D digital projector, and 140 seats with interactive commands. To further enhance the experience, visitors are given special 3-D glasses to enjoy the spectacle projected onto the dome.


By Pedro Dá Mesquita in Macao

(Issue N. 3, April 2010)