History and conditioning factors
The roots of the Barcelona Museum of Ethnology go back to the 1920s, when a group of intellectuals and academics interested in ethnology and folklore sat down and discussed the need to create centres to explain and interpret the cultural, social and economic realities of traditional societies.
The Museu Etnològic i Colonial was created in 1949 in a pavilion built in the early 20th century that had previously been used for several different things: the headquarters of the Colla de l’Arròs, a workers’ recreational society, and shelter for the designers of the Laribal gardens on Montjuïc for the 1929 Universal Exhibition. On the same site, a new building was inaugurated in 1973 and is now the home of the Barcelona Museum of Ethnology. It was built by municipal architects Antoni Lozoya, Bonaventura Bassegoda Nonell, Joan Puigdengolas and Jesús López.
In the beginning, the Museum housed several different collections amassed by leaders of Catalan society over the second half of the 19th century in the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea, Ecuador and Peru, as well as a number of objects from the Centre of Missions at the 1929 Universal Exhibition.
Overseen by August Panyella, several ethnographic expeditions were conducted around the world between 1950 and 1980. The first were to Morocco and Equatorial Guinea. Later expeditions took them to places in Asia, like Nepal and India, as well as Afghanistan and Turkey. The American collections were accumulated though work in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia, and in Central America. These were later joined by African collections from Ethiopia and Senegal.
Eudald Serra, a Museum collaborator, collected valuable objects from everyday life in Japan in the mid-20th century. Plus, he acted as the intermediary for the donation of important ethnographic collections from Australia. And, with the help of Albert Folch i Rusiñol (1922-1988) the museum acquired, among others, its collections from New Guinea.
Conditioning factors and characteristics of the physical location and setting
Montjuïc, a hill that overlooks the area geographically, has now been integrated into the city of Barcelona. The origins of this transformation can be found in the 1929 Universal Exhibition, which brought the first real opportunity to merge Montjuïc into the urban network of the city and make the mountain a great urban park and home to the city’s leading cultural facilities. At that time, work began on some of the most noteworthy gardens, such as the Laribal gardens, which were part of the 1929 Universal Exhibition grounds and designed by Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier and Nicolau M. Rubió Tudurí. The Barcelona Museum of Ethnology occupies a privileged location right next to the Laribal gardens.
Information on the existing building
The whole building is modular, based on hexagonal units. Similarities can be drawn to previous works like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House (1935-37) and the Spanish pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair by Corrales-Molezún (1958), which used hexagonal modules to organise the space. Wright himself said, “A cross section of honeycomb has more fertility and flexibility where human movement is concerned than the square.”
Floor plan for the Hanna House (F. Lloyd Wright, 1935-37) Floor plan for the Spanish pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair
The building is designed as a grid of concrete columns arranged in a honeycomb or hexagonal order with three inner courtyards, also hexagonal in shape, that structure the space and the exhibit programmes.
It is a building that, at first sight, seems to be strictly symmetrical. Nevertheless, elements like the topography, exposure to the sun and orientation condition how the museum adapts to its surroundings.
Arriving along the curved Passeig de Santa Madrona, the museum is divided into two parts: the main body (hexagonal grid) and the trapezoidal building with the main hall and the library/events room. This gives the museum five floors arranged as follows:
- Visitors enter the building on the ground floor, walking up a staircase that covers the height difference between the building’s interior and exterior. Once inside, they come to the reception area and the cloakroom in the main hall. On the same level, but not connected, there is also an education office and public toilets.
- Half a floor below, there is a basement with the Museum’s reserves. This floor is divided into two parts: one can be visited and the other is only for Museum personnel. This level also has loading docks, some offices, toilets, changing rooms and a series of storerooms and utility rooms.
- Above the basement, and half a floor above the main hall via the central staircase, we come to the first floor, which is home to the Museum’s permanent collection from Catalonia, Salamanca, Japan, Nuristan, Morocco, Ethiopia and Australia.
- On the second floor, above the main hall, is the original library.
- And above the exhibit room on the first floor is the third floor with temporary exhibitions and offices in the south-eastern corner of the building, in a space that was previously the Museum director’s quarters.
The building is structured around three flow hubs. The work to update the building added a lift/freight elevator to help move pieces around inside the museum (connecting the basement, first and third floors), as well as giving people with reduced mobility access to these areas.
Focusing on the main body of the building with the honeycomb structure, the first floor gives onto three courtyards, also hexagonal in shape, helping organise the inside of the museum while also letting sunlight into the exhibition halls. The lighting varies widely depending on the orientation of the façades. The north-eastern façade has large north-facing picture windows. The south-western façade is totally blind on the first and second floors and only opens up in the basement with a set of seven rhomboid-shaped sunken courtyards. The stairway that leads up between the last two central courtyards goes to the roof. This floor, the highest in the building, most clearly reflects the hexagonal geometry given the difference in height between the different modules. From the roof, the different areas of the city can be clearly seen and understood. It is a great balcony from which to enjoy the sights nearby, Montjuïc and the city of Barcelona, and the more distant landscape of the Catalan Costal Range.
In 2011, the preliminary studies were commissioned for the renovation of the building and to incorporate the Folch collection into the Museum of Ethnology.
The proposal was based on reading and understanding the existing building and its physical conditions (location, orientation, sun, etc.) with one main goal: to reorganise and optimise the building and its programmes, recovering the tangible and structural essence of the original project and boosting dialogue between the museum, its immediate surroundings and the city.
The study analysed the geometry and structural grid based on the hexagonal modules as the organisational law for the whole building. The concrete Y-shaped columns are at the joints of the arrises on the hexagonal modules.
The Folch collection was measured and quantified in order to establish its volume and that of the Museum’s archive, analysing the various programmes and coming to the following conclusions in terms of possible improvements:
_ The three central courtyards that structure the space and the Museum’s exhibition programme are key elements.
_ The basement houses several very different uses and programmes. The archive can be optimised.
_ The offices are scattered around the building. Those in what were previously the director’s quarters are underused.
_ There are architectural barriers, some of which are unjustified.
_ There aren’t enough public toilets or they are not properly distributed throughout the building.
_ The staircases are oversized.
_ The roof of the building is a great balcony with privileged views of the city of Barcelona but is not taken advantage of.
_ There is no connection between the Museum and the Laribal gardens, even though one of the Museum exits leads into them.
Taking these conditions into account, the project proposed:
_ We believe the basement is the Museum’s archive space and that it is essential to optimise and organise the space to be able to store and classify the reserve items from the Folch and ethnology collections.
_ We believe the roof must play an active part in the Museum, whether as an outdoor exhibition space or as a multipurpose area for other types of activities.
_ The three central courtyards play a very important role in improving the thermal behaviour of the building. They should be used as large bioclimates.
_ It is essential to reorganise the flow and programmes in the Museum rationally and in an orderly fashion.
_ We believe we must boost the connections between the interior and the exterior of the building, taking advantage of the Museum’s privileged location. This relationship could be fostered both on the ground floor and on the roof.
_ From an environmental point of view, we must reduce the consumption of power, materials and water as much as possible, applying various strategies. Depending on the environmental goals posed, we could consider reorganising and/or replacing some of the existing utilities with more efficient systems.
First phase of renovation work on the building / 2011-2012
In 2011, the project was drafted for the first phase of works to renovate the building. Following the directives set in the preliminary study, this focused on two aspects: full renovation of the basement, transforming it into a visitable reserve, and modifying the first and third floors to use for exhibitions, with adapted, refurbished spaces.
The basement would be a new space for the Museum. In the centre, taking advantage of the open ceilings, a system of compact archives would be used to store the reserves of the Ethnology and Folch collections, occupying half as much space as the current archive. The perimeter would have natural light and be a large visitable archive with numerous museological possibilities. A long built-in shelving unit painted white would surround the central archive and act as a great display case for exhibitions on that floor.
The exhibition halls on the first and second floors would become a neutral container for exhibitions, highlighting the original geometry of the building. The dropped ceilings would be redone, respecting the spacing and hexagonal grid. Finally, the project proposed eliminating all of the different elements and add-ons that had distorted the space over time.
Before renovation works After renovation works
Entrance hall (2015) and future project (2015-2019)
In 2015, in line with the criteria established in the first phase, a project to improve the hall was carried out, optimising its conditions and seeking to create a new opening to the Museum. The proposal was to increase the capacity of the hall by putting the new limit at the edge of the building. Consolidating the new floor plans and roof and its exterior projection changes the perception of the scale of the Museum entrance, connecting it and bringing it closer with a new horizon that showcases the city of Barcelona.
The works maintain the essence of the existing buildings, regaining their structural and material clarity, working with new flooring to be expanded to the outside area in the future, and displaying the concrete coffered ceilings by eliminating the aluminium dropped ceiling.
The horizontal projection work and improvements to vertical communication between spaces will facilitate future works to connect all of the floors (including the roof), as well as the relationship between the ground floor and its immediate surroundings.
The project to renovate the Barcelona Museum of Ethnology is recovering and promoting its original conditions, blurring the limits between the different parts and facilitating co-existence and dialogue between the contents, programmes and spaces in time.
The present work has been elaborated by the Architecture Studio Toni Gironès www.tonigirones.com